In our new world, will remote work help or hinder gender equality?

There’s no way to skirt around the facts: 2020 has been, generally speaking, a disastrous year for working women. Though individual success stories abound — you may be thinking of your female friend (or yourself!) having easily slid into the groove of working from home — the numbers which reflect the larger landscape tell a different, dismal story. 

Let’s take a look: One in four women are considering taking a leave of absence or exiting the workforce altogether, according to this year’s Women in the Workplace report, the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. For the first time in the study’s 6-year run, it’s observed that women are leaving the workforce at a higher rate than men. Just how much higher? Between August and September of this year, 1.1 million workers dropped out of the labor force, and a staggering 865,000 of them were women (that’s four times more than their male coworkers). If this is the first time you’re hearing about this, well, we’re not surprised. 


“I think what we’re seeing could be one of those out of sight, out of mind situations,” explains Dr. Paula Helu-Brown, PhD in Social Work and assistant professor at MSMU in Los Angeles who has researched gender dynamics. “A lot of people continue to work remotely and so the actual feeling and environment that thrives with diversity and the presence of women in the workplace is being ignored because we’re not facing it.” 

In addition, gender inequality has historically been framed as a “women problem,” a burden that is theirs to address because it is women who stand to gain something from it. Though that has been proven to not be the case — in recent years, “research has shown that the increase of women in leadership has helped businesses to thrive in unprecedented ways,” according to Forbes — it seems society still needs constant reminders that including and supporting women in the workforce is not just a morally virtuous stance, but a business-savvy one, too. 

 

What’s behind this massive exodus of women from the proverbial seats at the tables of business? 

 

The answer is layered and complex, and so, unfortunately, is its solution. We can begin with the responsibilities of care and nurture. Women are tasked with caring for children as well as the elderly and sick members of society not only in a professional sense (in many countries, women comprise over 75% of the health care sector alone, and 76% in the education sector), but in a cultural sense, as well. According to the 2018 Women in the Workforce report, women are eight times more likely than men to look after sick children or manage their children’s schedules, and they are more likely than men to stop working to care for elderly family members. 

“I think the pandemic has made these [issues] even more salient for women because as we are working from home, a lot of the responsibilities that had previously been distributed more evenly with other members of the household or external support fall back on women,” says Dr. Helu-Brown. This is to say, though these are not novel issues women face, the closing of schools and daycare programs coupled with the rise in general health scares and concerns during the past year has exacerbated the challenge. 

 

How does Remote Work Impact Women Differently? 

 

“This is taking us back a few years, if not a decade, in the progress women have made in the workforce,” adds Dr. Helu-Brown, noting, however, that “on the flip side, for a lot of women, the possibility of working from home may have been a positive. For me, it was convenient because I’m a professor and a therapist, and am able to conduct my work online.” After she had a baby in June, Dr. Helu-Brown was able to ease back into work without having to be separated from her newborn for long periods of time. “[Working remotely] was something that helped me continue in my career, but I know for a lot of women that is not the case.” 


Yamile Nazor, a Customer Success Team Leader at ArchDaily, the world’s most visited architecture website, had the option of working remotely whenever she chose to before the pandemic, but rarely took advantage of it. Because she has no caregiving duties beyond a puppy — the newest member of her household — Nazor actually found that working from home increased her focus and productivity. “I’m a very social person, and I enjoy being surrounded by people, but I hadn’t noticed how much of a distraction that was until I realized that, working from home, I was much more efficient in completing my tasks,” she says. 


In striking contrast, Dr. Caroline Newbold, a medical researcher and professor whose name has been changed at her request, has faced unprecedented personal challenges during the pandemic. “I usually split my work between my lab and the classroom,” she says, “but for most of this year, I haven’t been able to go to either.” Because her daughter, aged 7, has severe asthma, she has held strict quarantine since the beginning of the pandemic. Without the possibility of hiring a private tutor or a housekeeper, Dr. Newbold has found herself juggling housework and her hyperactive child’s schedule, on top of her already excessive professional duties. 

“My husband means well, but he has no experience in housekeeping or childcare, so he isn’t of much help, unfortunately,” she laments. “Even before the pandemic, I would feel I had too much on my plate professionally, and now it feels as if I’m barely keeping everything together.” With a second baby now on the way and no exact date for a vaccine to be mass distributed in her country, she regrettably admits she will probably take a temporary leave of absence next semester. 

 

Why are the last nine months not an accurate reflection of the benefits of remote work?

 

A recent report published by the Center for American Progress estimates that the risk of mothers leaving the labor force and reducing work hours in order to assume caretaking responsibilities amounts to $64.5 billion per year in lost wages and economic activity. It should go without saying that this would have disastrous consequences for the United States’ economy, so why is there such a glaring lack of action from those in political and business leadership roles? “Without both immediate and long-term action to shore up the child care infrastructure and establish more progressive work-family policies, the United States cannot achieve continued economic growth nor protect and advance gender equity,” states the report. 


For years, advocates of remote work have lauded the innovative model for its ability to enhance diversity and promote inclusivity in the workplace. In many ways, this is true. The possibility of working from home widens the pool of talent from which companies hire new members of their teams — those who do not live in major metropolitan areas, for example, can now access high-level positions in companies which formerly conducted their businesses from high-rises in big cities. Additionally, it’s worth noting that remote workers shine for their work, not their ability to charm the higher-ups through hallway chit chat. In many ways, this can even the playing field for people from marginalized backgrounds, who don’t socialize as easily or aren’t as adept at code-switching as their peers from more privileged backgrounds. But the ways in which women (especially mothers) have been negatively affected by the unplanned, massive pivot to remote work are worth examining. 


Before COVID-19 took over headlines and conversations, many media outlets published different versions of the same argument — remote work is working women’s greatest ally on the path towards gender equality in the workplace. (This one was published in January of this year, and this one as late as mid-March… little did we know then how much and how quickly the world would change.) Though many may be quick to wave current statistics in the face of those authors as a sort of “gotcha!” moment, we must consider that the way the world was thrusted into working from home this year is far from ideal. Under normal circumstances, children wouldn’t be home around the clock; schools would be open most of the year, and summer activities and camps can take over during breaks. Under normal circumstances, the flexibility remote work offers, which allows women to easily juggle their personal and professional duties, can be seen as a positive, albeit band-aid, sort of solution.

In this memorable Medium article from May, the author advises us to remember: “At this moment, you are not just working from home. You are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.” Though it’s a brilliant way to frame it — and it’s certainly amazing to realize that, despite the lack of a meticulous strategy, general productivity has not declined through the pandemic — it’s still of little use to the hundreds of thousands of women who have been pushed to their limits and forced out of their workplaces, and the hundreds of thousands more to come. In the United States, the responsibility of addressing this shouldn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of companies; improved access to affordable childcare and medical care is a long overdue task for Congress to tackle, and equally distributing family responsibilities between men and women has come a long way, but still has a while to go.

 

Can companies utilize remote work to empower their marginalized employees?

 

For Dr. Helu-Brown, it’s important that companies double down on their commitment to gender equality as they move forward, especially if they plan to remain remote. Her specific recommendations? Taking on an active role in what each worker’s home workspace looks like — providing proper equipment or even consulting with experts of home office setups — signals not only that a company is invested in their team’s success and general wellbeing, but also that they encourage and actively support women setting boundaries between personal life and work, despite both realms existing under one roof. 

Dr. Helu-Brown also advises implementing partial work weeks or more flexible work hours; allowing women to work by project rather than by fixed schedule; providing services and support for childcare, including expanding their paid family leave policies; and, in general, striving for a family-friendly environment.  “Making space for children to be regarded positively, or being open to the occasional cameo appearance of a child, partner, or pet, makes a great difference in the culture of a company and the way women feel within it,” she says. 


Remote work in and of itself is neither savior to nor culprit of the challenges faced by working women in 2020. Depending on how it’s implemented, however, it can either exacerbate or alleviate certain struggles. As the world settles back to normal in a post-vaccine landscape, remote work very well may be the perfect opportunity to address gender inequality in the workplace once and for all. This won’t, however, be an organic repercussion of switching to a remote work model — companies have to want and work to make it happen, pushing forward progressive support systems for their teams. 


We weren’t able to do it back in March, but the time has come for a plan and a considered answer: Moving forward, how will we choose for remote work to shape society?

 

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