Jobs and the Future of Work

3 ways remote work is a double-edged sword for women’s careers

Firms aiming to be more inclusive must be aware of the gender component of remote work, which can be a double-edged sword for women.

Firms aiming to be more inclusive must be aware of the gender component of remote work, which can be a double-edged sword for women. Image: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Isabel Villamor
Assistant Professor of Managing People in Organizations, IESE Business School
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Future of Work

  • Businesses across the world are seeking the right combination of in-office and remote work, but for women this can be particularly tricky.
  • Firms aiming to be more inclusive must be aware of the gender component of remote work, which can be a double-edged sword for women.
  • Here's why companies should work to implement policies that unlock the positive aspects of remote work for a more equal workplace.

Companies across the globe are seeking the right post-pandemic blend of in-office and remote work. But for women, finding the right balance is particularly tricky, because remote work can simultaneously boost and damage their careers.

Companies striving for inclusive workplaces should be aware of the gender component of remote work because research shows that virtuality is a double-edged sword for women.

On one hand, remote working shows great promise to overcome persistent, career-limiting challenges, while on the other it holds the potential to inhibit women’s professional success.

To better understand how these competing dynamics work, N. Sharon Hill and Kira O. Foley of George Washington University, Purdue University’s Ellen Ernst Kossek and I studied remote work and its effects on women’s careers over the last three decades – including the outsized experiment in remote work that was COVID-19.

Here are the three areas of tension relating to remote working that we consistently found:

Tension 1: Setting boundaries

On the positive side, the greater flexibility of remote work allows women to better handle non-work demands, especially those who are juggling family duties, whether it’s looking after children or caring for parents.

That translates into a greater sense of work-life balance and general wellbeing, and can improve job performance, narrow the motherhood pay gap, and increase labour force participation of married women.

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So far, all good. Yet at the same time, our research found that remote work blurs the boundaries between work and home, and this can be exhaustively difficult to manage. Women may be expected to respond to more family and household demands during work hours if they’re at home than if they’re at the office.

Virtual work can create an unhealthy cycle of working all the time, or creating pressure to be available 24/7, or feeling like you constantly need to catch up.

Tension 2: Accessing job opportunities

The enhanced and reduced job opportunities of remote work have implications for pay, career advancement and access to leadership roles.

Having more flexibility might encourage women to pursue better positions even if their personal circumstances change; if, for example, they have children. Otherwise, faced with major life changes, women are more likely than men to cut back their hours or even take a break from working entirely. Thus, remote work can reduce this sort of advancement-derailing interruption.

In addition, virtual work can open up career opportunities that women might otherwise be unable or unwilling to take advantage of – say, for example, a position in another country without having to fully relocate. Thus, virtuality can open windows of opportunity, either to steadily advance or to take up new challenges.

And yet in some companies, women who opt for flexible arrangements may be stigmatized more than men for what is seen as prioritizing family over work.

Performance assessments of women requesting flexible work have been shown to be weaker. Women who work remotely can end up earning less and enjoying less visibility within the company than male counterparts who spend most of their time at the office.

Women may also shy away from remote leadership and global roles because they tend to increase travel to visit far-off colleagues or clients, which can undercut family life. And even if it’s possible to take up a global role from your home country – and often it’s impossible – it can be tough to truly excel in the role if you don’t fully relocate.

Tension 3: Managing social dynamics

Virtual work by its very definition involves electronic communication, and there’s much work still to be done to fully understand the gender implications of this.

In some ways, this seems to promote women’s social integration in the workplace. Virtual communication that is “leaner” (such as email) can make gender less salient, which may benefit women.

A preference for collaboration means that women can sometimes thrive in dispersed virtual teams, leading to more cooperative learning and participative communication – and eventually leadership roles. There can be less gender stereotyping in remote work, which allows women to find their voice in the team.

The flipside may also be true. The leanness of virtual communication can also reduce opportunities to counter social stereotypes when they exist. That leaves women with stereotypical evaluations and task assignments.

In addition, there are fewer chances to build more personal relationships outside of office hours, which can be harmful career-wide in a variety of ways.

Virtuality dynamics and outcomes for women.
Virtuality dynamics and outcomes for women. Image: IESE

How to defuse tensions around remote working

There’s no single way to eliminate these tensions, but our research hinted at some of the ways they can be defused. One is related to personal and professional support. Women with children who have spouses that take on household responsibilities can find greater work-life balance when working from home and are more comfortable with being away for travel.

Co-workers and managers are also key in making sure that flexible work arrangements are successful. Communications must reach everyone; workloads and deadlines must fit into working hours – whether employees are in the office or at home.

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But it goes beyond individual actions. Companies and organizations are responsible for putting into place policies that are supportive of work-life balance and creating work cultures in which remote work isn’t penalized. They should also avoid framing work-from-home arrangements as women’s issues.

Countries with cultures that are more supportive of professional women generate a context that enables them to choose flexibility. Specific national policies, such as providing childcare facilities, can also help women to thrive professionally in a virtual world.

All of this matters because even if employers are nudging workers back into the office, remote work is here to stay. Our research shows that this has the potential to promote equality but also to widen inequalities, and it will be up to companies to implement policies that unlock the positive aspects of remote work for a more equal workplace.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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