Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a major shift in the way we work. In fact, an MIT study shows that in the US, over half the pre-COVID-19 workforce is now working from home (WFH). While many believe that the move towards WFH was inevitable, the process has been rapidly accelerated. There has been plenty of media discussing the pros and cons of WFH. We’ve seen – and even published, some articles exploring topics around WFH – everything from the effects of WFH on productivity to its environmental impact.
Now, we are going to take a dive into another important issue – the effect of WFH on gender equality in the workplace. There is a lot of literature heralding WFH and flexible hours as a weapon against gender inequality. On the contrary, there is an equal amount of research slamming WFH for widening the inequality gap. We are going to explore both sides of the argument, in an attempt to assess the true impact of WFH on women and their careers.
When WFH Works Against Women
There is evidence to show that the socioeconomic burden of COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting women. A South African study showed that women accounted for two-thirds of COVID-19 related job loss. Additional research, done in the UK, showed an increase in domestic violence over the pandemic. Experts attribute this to the pressures of social isolation.
WFH Increases Motherhood Tax
Numerous studies show that mothers earn less than both fathers and childless women. This has been aptly named ‘motherhood tax’. Motherhood tax is a global phenomenon that is proportional to the gender pay gap in a particular country. So, if there is a greater pay gap, motherhood tax is also greater. Hiring and promotional practices are an additional feeder of this phenomenon. Many companies weed out mothers and those who plan to become mothers in the hiring process. From personal experience during job interviews, prospective employers often ask if I plan to have children in the next five years.
WFH and Childcare
When adults were sent home from work to protect them against the coronavirus, children were also sent home. Over 290 million children are out of school. These statistics don’t include children who are no longer able to go to early childhood development centres like crechès and playschools.
In many cultures, women are traditionally shoulder domestic duties and childcare. Furthermore, moms that rely on work-related child care services are now no-longer able to do so. This is not to say that men don’t contribute to child care, only that in many households the burden falls solely on the mother. So, not only is your average working mom trying to adapt to WFH, but she has an increased childcare burden.
Under pressure to finish the academic year, many schools have created an at-home syllabus. This puts excess pressure on the mother to facilitate the learning environment. Particularly true for younger children who need help reading and interpreting their school work.
Relating this back to motherhood tax, when in a WFH scenario moms have great strains on their time and thus have compromised productivity compared to their counterparts. This decrease in productivity may result in a decrease in potential earning if the mom is working in a no-work, no-pay situation.
Breaking Into The ‘Boys’ Club’
Women and other minority groups are often excluded from critical networking opportunities, informal decision making processes, and informal mentorship and feedback. Often, business deals made on the golf course or informal feedback given over drinks can play a massive role in furthering one’s career development. The concern with WFH is that the lack of face-to-face time might increase this type of exclusion.
When one analyses managerial positions among the genders, this effect is clear. Studies show that women are 21% less likely to get promoted into a managerial position than men. Additionally, women are less likely to get hired directly into these positions. Taken together this results in women holding a mere 38% of manager-level positions. Putting this in perspective, studies show that only 23% of women are happy with their career trajectory.
When WFH Works For Women
The What Women Want Report 2020 showed that an overwhelming 98% of women would like to have more flexible work arrangements and would like to WFH at least one day per week. While 69% said that they would like to achieve a better work life balance. WFH does allow the individual more control over their daily schedule. This is integral to all workers, particularly parents.
Here, I’ll digress with another personal story. A friend of mine, a young single mother was doing her internship in a psychology clinic. She asked her boss if she could leave thirty minutes early on a Thursday to fetch her son from school, she was told that she would have to take a full days leave in order to do so. When she tried to negotiate, she was promptly told that if she didn’t like it, she could leave.
This teaches us an important lesson. Flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to to set your own hours or even to WFH, it means basic understanding from supervisors. A WFH environment with no support, encouragement, or understanding is not a flexible environment.
Additionally, the strain of childcare on WFH moms is higher now during the pandemic than it will be in the future. Once children return to school and early-childhood development centres re-open, alot albeit not all of the pressures will normalise.
After analysis of the various articles I’ve cited, as well as my experiences as a woman in the workplace, I believe that many mothers would choose to WFH – despite the possible repercussions of slowed career development. Choosing between picking up your child from school and quitting your job is not something anyone should have to do. Having the freedom of movement allowed by WFH might seem a fair trade-off for a potentially slowed career trajectory. In essence, one is making the choice between a possibility and a tangible need.
What Can We Do To Improve WFH Gender Equality?
A WFH environment doesn’t necessarily mean an inequitable one. If we are aware of the types of exclusion that can happen in a WFH environment, we can prevent them. Here are some important changes companies can make to ensure an equitable WFH program:
1. Representation In Leadership Positions
Adequately represent minority groups in your top leadership positions. At Goodman Lantern, our ethnically diverse leadership team is 50% female.
PayeEmployees of equal rank and experience at the same rate regardless of the gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. At Goodman Lantern, we have two methods of working out payment. Our managers and tech teams are paid on a per-hour rate that is based on position and experience. Our content team is paid on a per-project basis which is based on respective length and difficulty.
3. Equal training and mentoring
Grant all team members the same access to mentorship and training programs. In the WFH scenario, inclusive social gatherings are an important part of facilitating employee networking. Social events such as Zoom ‘pub-quizzes’ are a favourite among the Goodman Lantern team.
4. Avoid having two tiers of employees
Allowing your WFH employees to become second-class citizens compared to your in-office staff, is a dangerous game. This can particularly affect working mothers, as they are more likely to elect to WFH. Treat all workers equally, give them the same opportunities, and pay them according to the same scale.
WFH can either stunt or progress gender equality in a given company. If we are to get it right, we need to be aware of possible problems, and try to address them before they crop up. Most importantly, we need to ask the women in our workplaces what they need to achieve. The future is here, and she is female.