Could hybrid working reverse progress towards gender parity in business?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of businesses who were able to switch to remote working did so, as an alternative to all out closure. Post-pandemic, many are embracing hybrid working. However, for all of the benefits hybrid working offers, it also has the potential to slow, or even reverse progress towards gender parity in business.

The key benefits of hybrid working

Hybrid working is generally considered by most to be a step forward for employee work life balance, not least thanks to the time saved by not travelling to the office, which can be spent with family and on other personal matters. Hybrid working also often entails flexibility around working hours, allowing employees to work around their personal or familial commitments.

More broadly, hybrid working also has the potential to break down gender stereotypes.  It is routinely utilised by both men and women which reduces negative perceptions associated with working from home for family reasons, such as home workers being less committed, driven, or hardworking (previously applied disproportionately to women).

The downside of hybrid working for gender parity

The reality is however that, generally, women carry out more childcare (and often household duties) than men. COVID-19 highlighted the impact of this higher care burden.  Of those who were in paid work prior to the lockdowns, mothers were 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost or left their job, and they were 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Similarly, a survey of women working in corporate jobs in the US found that during the COVID-19 lockdowns and in the midst of home-schooling, one in four female employees considered stepping out of or slowing down their careers. With hybrid working remaining a common feature post-pandemic, the boundaries between work and home life are being blurred, creating a pressure on women to ‘do it all’ – care for children, maintain the home and progress a career – which can result in them having to choose, or at least prioritise, one or the other.

As women have been found more likely than men to work from home at least one day per week post-pandemic, it follows that offices could increasingly revert back to being male dominated environments. As a result, women would be more likely to miss out on the informal networking which occurs in the workplace and often results in hearing about opportunities, gaining recognition and resulting promotions.

Comment

Employers should ensure that all business information and training is delivered in a way which is accessible virtually, and not just in person. Live interactions, such as team meetings and training, should also be a regular feature so that anyone working from home remains integrated and engaged with the latest developments and opportunities within the business.

Employers may also need to revisit their criteria (including any unconscious bias) in respect of  promotions and general evaluation, to account for the fact homeworkers have less visibility. For example, organisations should move on from the outdated view that those who work long hours in the office are more hardworking and committed. This measure naturally disadvantages those who are not able to work early or late hours due to other commitments, such as childcare, and the working hours of remote workers that are largely unseen (or certainly less visible) by management. Instead, employers should focus on the objective quality of work produced by staff compared to others of the same level of seniority.

Above all, in order to continue to make strides towards gender parity, businesses must proactively think about their hybrid working policies and how they might impact men and women in different ways.

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