Is working from home harming women’s careers?

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kayleigh Bateman, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • As a result of working from home, 51% of women are less optimistic about their career prospects than they were pre-pandemic, according to a survey.
  • Difficulties accessing childcare and COVID-19 disruptions to schooling mean many women continue to work from home while men return to the office.
  • Women could be overlooked for career advancements by missing out on the spontaneity of office conversations.

As workers around the world return to the office, women still working from home may find their careers begin to stall, according to Bank of England policymaker Catherine Mann.

Speaking at an event for women in finance hosted by Financial News, she said virtual working methods such as video conferencing cannot replicate spontaneous office conversations that contribute to recognition and career developments.

“Virtual platforms are way better than they were even five years ago. But the extemporaneous, spontaneity – those are hard to replicate in a virtual setting.”

According to Mann, difficulties accessing childcare and COVID-19 disruptions to schooling mean that many women continue to work from home while men return to the office.

“There is the potential for two tracks. There’s the people who are on the virtual track and people who are on a physical track. And I do worry that we will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately,” she said.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

But for some women in the UK, working from home is actually having the opposite effect now that the pressure of homeschooling has eased.

More that half of respondents to a BBC survey said they felt “working from home would help them progress at work”, because “childcare and caring duties had become less of a hindrance” to full-time roles.

Furthermore, 65% of managers believe that working from home helps women advance their careers.

What’s the international view?

The global Women @ Work survey by Deloitte last year found that 51% of women are now less optimistic about their career prospects than before the pandemic. Surveying 5,000 working women across 10 countries, the report aimed to investigate the impact COVID-19 has had on gender equality in the workplace.

Nearly seven out of 10 women whose daily routines have changed as a result of COVID-19 believe their career progression will slow down as a result, a separate study by Deloitte, “Understanding the pandemic’s impact on working women,” found. Almost a third of women said they now feel they work in an “on-demand” environment and are concerned their careers will suffer if they are not always available.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that during lockdown UK mothers were spending less time on paid work, but more time on household responsibilities compared to fathers.

a chart showing that mothers balancing work and family life in lockdown were found to be spending more time looking after children than fathers
Mothers balancing work and family life in lockdown were found to be spending more time looking after children than fathers. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies

How can we ensure equal opportunities for women?

Workplaces need to prioritize the issue of women working from home, to ensure they don’t miss out on any opportunities being offered, Michele Parmelee, Global Deputy CEO and Chief People & Purpose Officer, said in Deloitte’s Women @ Work report last year.

“Our survey respondents are clear about what needs to be done to reverse the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on working women,” she said in a statement about the report.

“As organizations look to rebuild their workplaces, those that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their policies and culture, and provide tangible support for the women in their workforces will be more resilient against future disruptions. Additionally, they will lay the groundwork needed to propel women and gender equity forward in the workplace.”

Former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, voiced her concerns about women being left out of crucial conversations in an article she co-wrote for Harvard Business Review last year.

“If going to the office becomes a status symbol, at least among knowledge workers, our concern is that men will be gifted more exclusive or privileged access to it than women,” said Gillard, Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup.

Leaders in the workplace have just two choices to make: “To actively shape the outcome or to just see what happens, with all the attendant risks of unacceptable results and increased likelihood of business failure. Acting now to secure the prize of a more productive, engaged, loyal, and diverse workforce has to be worth the effort.”


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