Is remote working bad for women’s careers?

Does working remotely or in a hybrid way create greater inequality for women in the workplace?

woman working from home at night

 

Is working from home bad for women? That was the thesis of a December article in iNews by Rhiannon Picton-James [https://inews.co.uk/opinion/remote-work-harmful-women-back-1950s-2803725]. It cited our annual survey results showing 43% of mothers who work remotely feel they have been overlooked for promotion and work opportunities, whilst almost a third (29%) say they don’t feel fully included at work.

The basic idea was that women are more likely to want to work from home and less likely to want to return full time to the office, but the result is virtual invisibility when it comes to promotion and ending up doing most of the household chores and childcare. In short, greater inequality. This is certainly not a new thing, but Covid has meant more women have experienced working from home so more are being exposed to it.

The alternative, argued well before Covid, was to share parenting more equally and to normalise flexible working, to ensure those who work flexibly, for instance, part time or remotely, could gain promotion. Yet, despite some notable exceptions, little seems to have changed on that front. Covid was touted as fast forwarding that normalisation and yet the status quo seems to have reasserted itself on steroids in the last months.

And yet there are so many reasons in favour of greater flexibility – the changing nature of societies, the increasing cost of living and demographic changes [in particular the ageing workforce] – that mean old ways of working need to shift. Which is not to say that remote or hybrid working don’t have challenges. All ways of working have pros and cons – the answer is to address these head on.

Maybe fast change is not something that societies as a whole do. It’s too much for them and hence the tendency is to slip back, to endlessly swing between change and resistance to change. Maybe Covid wasn’t the positive we thought it could be on that front because remote and hybrid working have been swept up into all the other problems associated with the pandemic. Covid working was not normal remote working, after all, which comes in many formats, from worknig from home to working anywhere [for instance, on sites or in cafes] to working in local hubs. With Covid, there was a lot more going on besides. For one, we were isolated from almost everyone.

The Covid experience has made some long for the perceived warm embrace of the office, of being with people. Yet our memories seem not to extend past a few years. In a while we will become jaded once again with office politics, meetings in dusty rooms and all the rest.

One thing that probably won’t get much focus, because it never does, is the number of people – many of them women – who drop out of their careers, maybe out of the workforce altogether, maybe starting up a company or freelancing or maybe taking a lower paid or part-time job nearer home.

Because you can bemoan it all you like but remote and hybrid working does offer some way of staying in a more senior role. It may stop you from being promoted or from finding a new role because many employers still don’t get it [a report out last week suggested one in five SMEs would be put off a candidate who asked for hybrid or remote working at interview], but what is the alternative if the world of work doesn’t change fundamentally when it comes to how it views people’s contributions, skills and value?

I have worked remotely or hybrid for many, many years, I have flexed to the point of becoming a contortionist and there have definitely been trade-offs. In one of my jobs I am doing more or less the same thing I did eons ago, on much the same rate of pay, even though I have decades of experience. No-one has asked me if I wanted to progress or do something different; in fact there is little opportunity to talk to people about this. Maybe I should have been more insistent, but that often counts against women and it brings with it the threat that hybrid working will be removed. Better to keep your head down.

In part, I have been made to feel that it is my own fault for not being in the office more. Maybe that is the case, even though I would argue that I have done my job well and have a lot more to offer. The trade-off is that I have been around for my kids. That has been worth it for me. More than worth it. Employers would take over your whole life if they could and still not be satisfied. I have earned less, I have not been a CEO or a senior manager or whatever, but I have not lost when it comes to the things that actually matter. The losers, I would argue, are the employers who fail to capitalise on the talent they have or lose it altogether.



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