Remote Work May Increase Gender Inclusivity for Women—but May Also Lead to Career Penalties Post-Pandemic

Remote Work May Increase Gender Inclusivity for Women—but May Also Lead to Career Penalties Post-Pandemic

The pandemic radically shifted the notion of “work.” Though companies continued on, it wasn’t the same as before. Companies pivoted their business model, closed down, or shifted to fully remote for the first time.

Which changes will stay and which will disappear when the pandemic has passed is unknown. And while the impact coronavirus has on a career path is also unknown, the reality is that women are more likely to experience a negative impact on their careers.

A Double Whammy

Purdue University released a statement in June that said, “After the pandemic, women who work from home may face career penalties.” The release pointed out that before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 7% of the U.S. workforce had access to work-from-home policies and other workplace flexibility benefits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just a few months later, it is estimated that around 50% of Americans work remotely. 

Purdue also pointed out that many women who are working from home are facing a double whammy: the boundaries that had existed between work and home now overlap even more than before, and many women are also experiencing layoffs. An April 2020 United Nations report shows what Purdue called “a negative pandemic effect on gender equality as women’s unpaid care work has increased.” 

“Companies with plans to roll out work-from-home policies on a wide scale after the pandemic must plan to adjust their workplace cultures,” according to Ellen Ernst Kossek, a Purdue University expert on inclusive organizations. Kossek is a Basial S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue’s Krannert School of Management and co-editor of the book Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations. asked Kossek for her perspective on whether remote work helps promote gender inclusivity, and if so, how? She emphasizes that when remote work is done by choice—and not forced, such as during a pandemic—it can promote gender inclusivity in terms of promoting labor force participation by women who have children or elder care responsibilities or other domestic demands.

Other potential advantages of working remotely, according to Kossek, include reduced commuting time and the possibility of some household multi-tasking. This may result in shorter work days—as well as less time out of the office and lower turnover for women due to family demands or high stress.

Work-Life Balance Is a Must

However, she issues a big caveat, noting that certain conditions are required for these benefits to occur.

“Remote work may not necessarily promote well-being for women unless they have the ability to control the timing and degree of work-life role boundary-blurring,” Kossek says. As an example, she explains that if mothers are trying to work on a computer while also supervising small children, they are likely to experience “higher role overload, work-family conflict, and higher family interruptions that enable ‘family creep’ into work roles and higher ‘job creep’ into family time.”

“Most people experience better focus and fewer cross work-nonwork process losses if they are able to separate roles,” Kossek says. One example of a role separator, she points out, is having a door for an office to close in the home, instead of working at the kitchen table with a television show on for the children. 

Yet Kossek emphasizes that her research shows women are more likely to integrate work and nonwork roles and jointly multi-task work and family demands. “This can lead to work and family intensification (doing more tasks from both domains in a compressed amount of time),” she says.

She adds that women working remotely will be more likely to experience higher well-being if they have a family member, such as a spouse, who is willing to share caregiving and household tasks equally. “Otherwise, women working remotely are simply ‘downloading the office’ onto the home and working a double shift,” Kossek explains.

Career Consequences

We also asked Kossek to elaborate on what penalties women may face after the pandemic if they work from home.

“If working remotely is seen as something that is done mainly for family reasons and personal preferences and not of benefit to the organization, both men and women will be penalized,” Kossek says. 

However, she adds that most research suggests women are more likely than men to use flexible work arrangements—such as teleworking—for family reasons. 

“Women are heavier users of workplace flexibility in part because they still cover more family demands,” Kossek says. “If companies don’t adapt their cultures as we reopen from the pandemic, it could hold women back, as well. Research shows that if you’re using telework and flexibility to finish a project late at night, managers love you; if you’re using it for family or personal reasons, they stigmatize you and think you’re not career-oriented.” 

Kossek suggests that employers need to think about how to empower people to talk about work boundaries and enact work in ways that fit their gender and family identities. 

“We have very embedded career cultures that were started years ago with a primarily male, breadwinner family configuration,” she says. “An unintended consequence of the pandemic is employment cultures could regress on the social progress that was being made on gender equality examined in our book.”

Therefore, she expects that post-pandemic, women may face negative career consequences in terms of pay, promotion, or job security if women come into the office less. 

“One reason for this is they may be stigmatized for working differently than ‘ideal workers’ who show up regularly to the office and therefore be seen as less career committed—even if they are working just as hard from home,” Kossek says. “Remote women workers also will have less face time to interact socially and be part of the core work culture and interact with leaders.” 

Kossek adds that many managers have more difficulty judging the performance of professional workers who they can’t see in front of them in an office. Working from home may also lead women to be isolated, not as well-known, or “relationally disconnected” from their bosses, peers, and leaders.

Take Action

So while remote work has the potential to create gender inclusivity and can, under certain circumstances, lighten the “second shift,” it’s important to be aware of the (not so) hidden penalties that women may face to an even greater extent after the pandemic. 

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By Robin Madell | Categories: Work Remotely

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