The feminist campaign for flexible work arrangements has been a long-running one. Despite ongoing demands over generations, it took a worldwide pandemic for widespread working from home arrangements to finally be accepted. Theoretically, telecommuting should be beneficial for women: it can be seen to promote inclusivity, empowering women of different circumstances to enter or remain in the workforce. However, problems occur when it is implemented in a context of entrenched gender inequality. Depending on attitudes in the home, the workplace and in wider society, the option to work from home can either address or exacerbate the marginalisation of women at work.
Juggling Work and Childcare
Businesses like Twitter and Facebook have already pledged that their staff have the option to work from home on a permanent basis, beyond the scope of the pandemic. Research suggests that women would be more likely to take that choice. There are many reasons for this; however, the most obvious is that, amongst parents, women tend to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities. When it becomes impossible to juggle the school run with an office schedule, many women leave the workplace, and some do so for good. Those who return face a lag in their career advancement due to the “interruption” presented by motherhood.
It follows that many of these women would have continued working if telecommuting was an option rather than stopping work altogether or switching to part-time employment (which is more likely to be low paid.) However, working from home is not just beneficial for women with children. Heterosexual couples in general are more likely to relocate when it benefits the male partner’s career. This has created the issue of the “trailing spouse” who must endure disruptions to her career path in order to support her partner. It can be hypothesized that if her work was remote, she wouldn’t have to change companies and effectively abandon the progress made in her position.
Promoting Diversity and Inclusivity
Telecommuting can also promote the inclusion of women with disabilities who experience additional obstacles in sustaining the typical 9 to 5 office job. They’re not the only people who may find the workplace environment an intimidating prospect. Despite many companies now having specific staff dedicated to promoting diversity, the office remains a site of tension for many women, especially those at the intersection of multiple oppressions such as women of colour or women in the LGBT community. Given societal obsession with women’s appearance and the strict rules that govern it, remote working can provide some relief for women who have previously experienced pressure to present themselves in ways that feel inauthentic or uncomfortable to them.
Alternative Communication Models
Another criticism of the modern workplace is that meetings tend to follow a traditionally masculine model whereby the loudest, most assertive person in the room receives the most attention. Remote work disrupts this by requiring alternative models for communication, many of which are text-based. Marginalized voices could, therefore, take advantage of these changes to promote their ideas. This only applies in a context where all staff members are working from home, though. If employers move to a model of choice and women, for a range of reasons, choose to telecommute at higher rates than men, it could have the reverse effect. In that case, offices would not just symbolically lack strong female representation; they could literally become devoid of women’s presence.
“Presenteeism” and Commitment
This is a huge problem in a business culture where managers value “presenteeism” and assume that physical presence in the work environment is a key indicator of commitment. Given women’s disproportionate share of caregiving and housekeeping responsibilities, there would be an increased societal pressure on women to choose the work from home option if it was presented to them. This choice could in turn be punished by managers who misunderstand their motivations, perceiving their decision as a lack of ambition or dedication to their work. In this way, remote working would exacerbate gender equality by entrenching a pre-existing problem: men are already promoted at higher rates than their female counterparts. The men who choose to work in the office will be more visible and so more likely to have their efforts formally recognized.
Advocating as a Collective
Historically, when women have made great advancements in the workplace, it’s because they have united and advocated for them as a collective. Remote working has the potential to undo this by isolating women from one another. Working alone may cut women off from mentors, erase the inspiring efforts of role models, and prevent the development of enriching relationships with peers. Of course, this could be avoided if companies take the time to nurture these networks and find innovative new ways for colleagues to connect. Online mentorship may prove especially important for gender inclusivity, since women with a mentor at work have been shown to receive more promotions and better pay while enjoying higher levels of happiness at work.
The Impact of Increased Household and Caregiving Responsibilities
Happiness at work is certainly needed right now. Throughout the pandemic, women have reported far lower rates of satisfaction with home working arrangements. The main reason for this seems to be that they have shouldered the burden of increased household and caregiving responsibilities due to closed schools and unavailable childcare services. This has resulted in women leaving their jobs en masse, to such an extent that NPR claims that the pandemic has turned the clock back by at least a generation in terms of the number of women currently in the workforce. Because women statistically earn less than men per hour worked, they are the ones who leave their job when family life becomes unsustainably stressful.
It is clear that working from home has the potential to represent greater inclusion for women. For many, it is more accessible than the physical workplace and it permits a greater flexibility of lifestyle, especially when it comes to childrearing. Innovative platforms may even become empowering forces for women if they are designed to promote more equal conversations that enable women’s voices to be heard and appreciated. However, the context in which remote working is offered as a choice is crucial. Women shouldn’t feel pressured to take this choice in order to comply with gender norms that dictate the home as their natural domain. For women to really benefit from telecommuting, the expectation that they simultaneously and single-handedly manage the unpaid work of housekeeping and childrearing must be overthrown.
How Corporate Culture Should Change
Companies must also change their culture and have more respect for the work-life balance of their employees. As Ellen Ernst Kossek, co-editor of the book “Creating Gender Inclusive Companies”, says: “Research shows that if you’re using telework and flexibility to finish a project late at night, managers love you; if you’re using it for family or personal reasons, they stigmatize you and think you’re not career-oriented.” Both women and men should feel comfortable choosing to work from home if that’s the best decision for them and their family, and they should not be castigated for this choice. It certainly should not have a negative impact on their career prospects.
If the division of household labour remains as it is, women are more likely to choose remote working than their male counterparts. If bosses continue to value presence over productivity, that means women will be further marginalized in the workforce. Should this occur, remote working will probably be described as having hindered gender inclusivity. In reality, fault should lie with our collective failure to evolve as a society and harness its potential. In the correct context, remote working can help gender inclusivity.