How flexible working really impacts gender equality at work
Debunking the myths
By Sharon Peake, Shape Talent Founder & CEO and Shazma Ahmed, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant
Recently we have seen a huge drive from companies to get employees back to the office. From Goldman Sachs to Netflix along with large swathes of financial services institutions, decision makers in many organisations are keen to return to pre-pandemic ways of working. The last few years have provided a fascinating social experiment in working from home, and we have heard remote working and flexible working practices referred to ‘the great equaliser’ for gender equity, whilst also being warned of the hidden dangers. So, is working from home really is helping or is it hindering gender equality?
Let us look at – and challenge – some commonly held beliefs.
Perception #1: ‘Women prefer working from home because they are more likely to prioritise their families’.
We have all heard that women are more likely to prioritise their families and therefore rely on flexible work, but is this true? In one study cited in the Harvard Business Review, interviews with 107 consultants; men and women at all levels in a consulting firm found that there was a perception that the obstacle to career advancement and prosperity for women was in part due to the priority women at the firm gave to their family and home responsibilities.i However, the data suggested that men and women alike were balancing their work and home responsibilities, however, this was not impacting the career advancement of men in the same way as it was women. Upon further review, the organisation found that the real reason women were being held back was because the organisational culture was one that encouraged women to opt for flexible working options to work around their family life and it was this ‘encouragement’ to a particular group was resulting in unfavourable outcomes. This narrative comes at the risk of ignoring and overlooking the problematic organisational culture that encourages overwork and perpetuates gender stereotypes and inequalities, however well intended such initiatives and ‘encouragement’ may be.
Reality: Both men and women prefer working from homeii
Both men and women prefer hybrid, remote work, considering flexible work to be among the top three benefits and crucial for a company’s success. There are clear benefits for working from home; a staggering 83% of employees find their work from home to be efficient and productive. And that is everyone, not just women A study by the Chartered Managment Institute found that 90% of men and 87% of women wanted to continue remote work post–pandemiciii. There is evidence to suggest that men are nervous about requesting flexible work and concerned about the impact this may have on their careers. A report by Working Families found that fathers are twice as much likely to worry about the impact of flexible working requests on their careers.iv Additionally, men and women alike find hybrid work better for work life balance and for reducing fatigue and burnout which inevitably has benefits for companies. In a paper co-authored by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman on what activities people like and dislike, commuting came up as most disliked activity.v
Perception #2: ‘Women miss key career advancing opportunities because of remote working.
Another narrative is that women who work from home are at risk of ‘missing out’ on key career enhancing opportunities that arise during in-person interactions. While this seems reasonable enough, we know it was a normal expectation pre-pandemic that women and men would be office-based, and we also know from the evidence that access to career enhancing opportunities for women were not any better then. So, it begs the question, is working remotely causing women to miss career–enhancing opportunities, or is it something else?
Reality: Unchecked organisational culture is the cause of women missing experiences critical to career progression.
The research is clear, Shape Talent’s Three Barriers white paper identifies systemic organisational barriers that make critical experiences elusive for womenvi. Access to informal networks and relationships are the building blocks of senior careers. Women miss out on these critical opportunities, and this is due to an organisational culture that gives men more career-related development. The issue is also in part due to ‘benevolent sexism’ underpinning how work is allocated to women. For example, an assumption that a critical opportunity involving travel would be more suited to a father rather than a mother. The deeply embedded gender stereotypes we hold are played out in our unconscious bias which shape organisational culture.
As much as it is convenient, citing work from home as a reason for women missing out on key career opportunities is simplistic and inaccurate. We need to delve deeper into why this is the case. In the world of remote and hybrid work, the perception that those who are physically visible are those doing the most work poses a significant risk of discrimination, favouritism and inaccurate perception of contribution impacting career progression.
A Work from Home study found that although remote workers were more productive than their peers at the office, their promotion rate dependent on performance fell simultaneously. The risk is exacerbated for those from marginalised groups who in general benefit from working from home. For example, in one survey, only 3% of black knowledge workers wanted to return to the office full time compared to 21% of their white counterparts. For women of colour, working from home avoids the need to ’code switch,’ however, while working from home for marginalised groups may provide some ease and improvements in mental health, this can come at a cost to their career progression when we add ’proximity bias’ into the mix of other factors by which marginalised groups are discriminated. It is therefore imperative to address biases within organisations to build a more inclusive culture. One way of improving organisational culture is through investing in women’s career-related development, a key factor in accelerating gender equity within an organisation.
Perception #3: Women are just not that ambitious and that is why they are happy to work from home.
When it comes to gender equality, we have seen positive steps relating to awareness, policy change and cultural shifts which challenge long-held gender stereotypes that perpetuate inequality. While there is an acknowledgement that there is more work to be done and recognising that despite all the positive changes, there is still a significant gap between men and women when it comes to senior leadership. Could it be, that women, just are not that ambitious?
Reality: Working flexibly is a factor in why women are more ambitious than ever.
A study found that overall, even when women considered themselves ‘ambitious’, only 31% wanted to be referred to as such.vii It is no surprise that this is the case; our Three Barriers to Women’s Progression white paper, identifies the penalties arising as a consequence of women behaving in ways contrary to gender norms and expectations, including the ‘leadership vs. likeability’, penalty where women are liked less as they progress, while the likeability of men increases as their careers progress.viii
Around 80% of women want to be promoted to the next level this year which is up 10% from 2019, supporting that the introduction of remote and flexible working during the pandemic contributes to an increase in ambition. What is more is that these figures also hold true for men. Another contributing factor may be the increased levels of psychological safety and reduction of burnout and fatigue that women experience when working from home.ix
The evidence is clear, despite the current push for a return to the office, organisations and employees alike have benefited from the normalisation of flexible working since the pandemic. While this has bought great advances for gender equality, there is a risk of narratives around working from home as a ‘woman focused’ benefit (and the consequent negative impact this has on career progression). There is a risk that narratives of this nature detract from the role organisations have to play in addressing cultures that enable and perpetuate systemic barriers to gender equity. In the same way presenteeism in the office will not resolve the gender inequality in the workplace issue, working flexibly and from home is not to blame. It is organisational culture and accountability that will shift the dial to a more gender inclusive culture. Clearly, there is more work to be done.
Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO, and Shazma Ahmed is an Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at Shape Talent, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.
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iii Chartered Management Institute (2021) What you think about WFH, flexible and hybrid working: the results are in
vii Nicholas Bloom, James Liang, John Roberts, Zhichun Jenny Ying, Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment , The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 130, Issue 1, February 2015https://futureforum.com/2021/03/11/dismantling-the-office-moving-from-retrofit-to-redesign/
viii Future Forum (2021) A New Era of Workplace Inclusion: Moving from Retrofit to Redesign