The impact of hybrid work on gender equality

Remote work challenges can impact women disproportionately. Companies need thoughtful solutions.

Companies need thoughtful solutions to reduce the impact of hybrid work on gender inequality
  • Remote-work challenges during the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women
  • CHROs and other leaders need to recognize ways that hybrid work can worsen gender inequality
  • A combination of policies, practices, and digital tools can help reduce those risks

Throughout the pandemic, Kayla, a senior manager for a healthcare technology company, thrived professionally but struggled to balance work with home and childcare needs. To focus on work, she often had to shut the bedroom door on her partner—a strain that contributed to the couple’s breakup.

Kayla, who spoke to Workflow on condition that her real name is not published, is hardly alone, and her struggle highlights a growing challenge not just for employees but also for chief human resource officers and other senior executives focused on equal treatment of all members of their workforces.

As companies return to the office, many are embracing hybrid work models that allow employees to split work hours between home and the office. But many experts warn that hybrid work can create a two-tier workforce with uneven opportunities for remote and in-office employees, particularly women who may face lack of career advancement or virtual harassment while working remotely. Since surveys indicate that women are still more likely to prefer to work from home, hybrid work policies can disproportionately affect working women.

When they think about gender inequities in hybrid work, they have to think about it as a design issue, not a policy issue.

As a result, business leaders need to recognize ways that hybrid work can worsen gender inequality, and to tailor their approach to reduce that risk. That means better training for managers, more support for remote workers, and digital tools to track employee experiences and career progress for women and men.

“When they think about gender inequities in hybrid work, they have to think about it as a design issue, not a policy issue,” says Janet Mertens, research director at the Josh Bersin Company, a leading HR consulting firm. “It’s an opportunity to design a new paradigm.”

The challenge, as Mertens and other experts suggest, is that there’s no blueprint to follow, and many women have dramatically different experiences and preferences about working styles.

Unequal experiences

Remote-work challenges during the early phase of the pandemic had a disproportionate effect on women. They were three times more likely than their male partners to assume childcare duties, and took on more housework. Blurring the boundaries around work also put a greater emotional burden on women, who experienced more burnout than male colleagues.

WFH also took a toll on women’s mental health, with greater incidence of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports. Only 37% of women said they had a positive work-from-home experience, compared with 79% of men, McKinsey found.

Perhaps more surprising, given all these challenges, is the number of women who say they would still prefer to continue working from home, according to a survey by FlexJobs, a search site for flexible employment. Remote work, the respondents said, gives greater flexibility over their schedules and doesn’t require dressing for an office. In the survey, more than two-thirds of women said that WFH is their top preference post pandemic, versus only 57% of men.

Hybrid work models

The challenge for many companies is to design a hybrid-work system that addresses some of the issues women face in working from home, while still enabling the work flexibility that many say they want. Policies, practices, and digital tools can help reduce gender inequality in hybrid work models, experts say.

The first step for C-level executives and HR departments is to foster greater awareness about the gender inequality inherent in remote work, and its potential to persist in hybrid-work models. That means opening a dialogue on the issue from the C-suite down to entry-level workers. “The pandemic opened the eyes of many CEOs and other executives that childcare matters,” says Tali Bray, head of technology diverse segments, representation, and inclusion for Wells Fargo.

Here are some other specific steps:

  • Targeted training. Train managers about inequity issues faced by women working remotely and monitor how managers allot team responsibilities, decision-making, and leadership roles. That means not favoring in-office team members over those working remotely.
  • WFH support resources. Establish networking and mentorship opportunities for remote workers, especially for women, who may have fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact with leaders than in-office workers.
  • New policies for a new model. Set clear zero-tolerance policies around virtual harassment. Emphasize during sexual-harassment training sessions the role that virtual collaboration tools can play in harassment.

Implementing safeguards to prevent or limit gender inequity for remote women workers is critical. “As a leader of a hybrid workplace, you need to be very intentional and purposeful about creating opportunities for everyone,” says Megan Headley, VP of research at TrustRadius, a software review site.

Digital support

Digital tools can also help reduce workplace gender inequality.

AI-driven analytics tools can measure data on employee experience, salary parity, and career progression for women and men, including metrics for both remote and in-office workers, and alert senior leaders to trends that indicate possible biases.

37%

Percentage of women who said they had a positive work-from-home experience in a recent survey.

Zoom meetings and Slack channels became prime vehicles for virtual harassment during the pandemic. While Zoom does not yet offer a mechanism to record and report harassment during calls, disabling private messaging and Zoom’s “annotations” feature can reduce those risks. More companies should adopt policies that require it. Managers can also add features such as #BiasCorrect to Slack and other chat tools to track and flag unconscious bias in digital communications.

One word of caution for ambitious CHROS, adds Mertens: With all the moving parts involved in designing hybrid work, gender inequity is not yet a top priority for the vast majority of companies. That, she says, needs to change. “This is not a one-and-done design solution. This needs to be an ongoing conversation.”

Kayla, for one, credits her company for doing just that. “I have gotten great mentorship from my boss through all of this,” she says. “She has definitely helped me to grow.”

While Kayla plans to continue working from home at least part-time, she’s looking forward to returning to the office part-time when it is a safe option, secure in the knowledge that, as she says, her organization is “alive” to creating an equitable workplace.