The flexible work paradox: Empowering or disadvantaging women in the workplace?
- 6 Min Read
Flexible forms of work are highly gendered. Part-time work for example, is predominantly undertaken by women – and it is often referred to as ‘career death’. When women do work flexibly, they often do so because they are also balancing childcare or other domestic responsibilities and working flexibly then in turn helps to ensure that […]
Flexible forms of work are highly gendered.
Part-time work for example, is predominantly undertaken by women – and it is often referred to as ‘career death’. When women do work flexibly, they often do so because they are also balancing childcare or other domestic responsibilities and working flexibly then in turn helps to ensure that this burden continues to fall to them.
A lack of quality flexible work contributes to the gender pay gap. Too often, when women have a family, they are forced to downshift their career into jobs that do not reflect their skills and knowledge or get stuck on the ‘mommy track’ – where she is assumed to care more about the kids than her work, resulting in career stagnation.
The inclusion risks of flexible work
Flexible work can help people to balance their work and their other responsibilities, but for women, it can be a double-edged sword. Flexible working has been said to allow couples to ‘do gender’. This means that, instead of flexible working creating opportunities for better work-life balance or for fathers to get more involved in childcare, it simply reinforces existing gender stereotypes.
The fact that women are often the person working in the kitchen rather than the study, get interrupted more when working from home and are still doing a ‘second shift’ of domestic labor helps to prove this point. Despite this, women generally want to work from home more than men. We cannot be sure exactly why this is the case, but it may be a reasonable assumption that it is because they need to balance those additional family responsibilities. So, they downshift, earn less, struggle to progress…. and they cycle continues.
Flexible workers have long been stigmatized. Research has found that flexible workers are perceived to be less committed and motivated and that they even cause more work for others. Flexible workers are not trusted – a 2022 Microsoft survey found that 85% of managers said hybrid work made it difficult to be confident that workers were productive. This is in direct contrast to consistent feedback from employees that they are more productive when working from home. Working remotely results in decreased facetime and visibility, which in turn is associated with reduced opportunities for reward and progression.
In her latest book Professor Heejung Chung, who has extensively researched the subject of flexible working, describes it as an amplifier. If there is an existing issue in the workplace, such as a lack of gender diversity, flexible work has the potential to amplify the problem further rather than solve it.
All these problems and biases can work together to create a very real challenge for hybrid work and gender inclusion. If women are working remotely more frequently, if men are getting more office face-time, if women are the ones on the receiving end of hybrid shaming and micro-aggressions (getting the washing done today are we?) then hybrid work might help individuals in the short term to balance work and life, but could result in long term implications for equality, progression and pay.
A 2022 Deloitte survey of hybrid workers found that 48% of women hybrid workers feel that they don’t have enough exposure to leaders, and 58% feel they have been excluded from important meetings. The hybrid era has barely begun, and the impact of hybrid on gender inclusion can already be felt. The Female Lead, working with Kings College London, have theorized the potential for a ‘hybrid ceiling’, where hybrid work will create one more barrier to women’s progression in the workplace.
This same report found another undesirable consequence of hybrid work in that women were ‘doubling down’, working harder in order to prove themselves worthy of hybrid arrangements and demonstrate their diligence. This is consistent with pre-pandemic research that identified flexible work often leads to employees working longer and harder, often to justify that they worked flexibly at all.
Hybrid work does have the potential to help all workers, not just women, balance their career and the other aspects of their lives. Flexible forms of work in general, when well designed and implemented, could also help to reduce the gender pay gap and other systematic gender inequalities. This will not however happen without effort, effective implementation, and challenging many of our pre-existing ways of working – as well as our organizational cultures.
Creating hybrid inclusion
If we want to truly create equality in hybrid work we need to foster organizational cultures that prioritize work-life balance and which all forms of flexible work are embraced – not just location flexibility. We also need to create organizations where employees are supported to achieve at their best and have opportunities to progress, however, wherever and whenever they work. We also need to fundamentally redefine how we assess performance and productivity (hint – this isn’t how often people are in the office).
There are practical steps we can take too. First, we can train managers on the biases that exist in relation to remote and flexible workers. We can introduce parental and family policies that support all employees to work flexibly throughout their lives and monitor the impact of hybrid work on progression, pay, and reward.
Hybrid works can be supported by creating opportunities for networking, mentoring, and maximizing in-person time so that people can build meaningful work relationships. Consider training everyone on how to run effective hybrid meetings so that all employees can be visible and have their voice heard, reducing the marginalization of those who are not in person. Better still, default to remote for transactional, update-type meetings. Finally, and crucially – take a zero-tolerance approach to flexible working micro-aggressions. Just say no to jokes and banter about working in a hybrid way.
Complex and multifaceted
The impact of hybrid work on gender inclusion is complex and multifaceted. There is much that we do not yet know and future research will help us to uncover. Organizations must be mindful of the potential of negative inclusion impacts, monitor hybrid working outcomes and take steps to ensure that hybrid work does not exacerbate existing inequalities further. This gives us the best possible chance to make sure that hybrid work, is inclusive work. If we achieve this, everyone benefits.