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Hybrid Work is Making Gender Inequality Worse

Here’s what workplace managers can do about it

It’s crystal-clear, hybrid work is here to stay. As the pandemic drags on, many companies have determined the hybrid model is the best option for their teams. But with that question mostly settled, a new debate has emerged: How can employers ensure hybrid work leads to successful outcomes regardless of where you choose to work, especially for women?

Experts are sounding alarm bells that hybrid work has unintended consequences for workplace gender equality. In a recent survey, about 68 percent of women told FlexJobs they would prefer to work remotely post-pandemic, compared to 57 percent of their male peers. These numbers hold up across several surveys and studies.

Why does this matter? Because hybrid work has the tendency to create a two-tiered system of employees, those in the office and those working primarily remotely. Those in the office are more likely to be men who reap the rewards of being front-and-center with managers and co-workers. Remote female workers can miss out on these rewards and become less visible.

Despite new flexible options, many companies still cling to the in-person culture. It’s easy to see how this can affect female workers. Remote, female employees become out of sight and out of mind, leading to fewer promotions and salary increases. The same could be said for any remote employee, regardless of gender. In a recent SHRM survey, 42 percent of supervisors said they sometimes forget about remote employees when assigning tasks, and 67 pitches of supervisors admitted they think remote workers are more easily replaceable.

Many facets of hybrid work gender inequality

Before I suggest solutions, let’s examine the problem a bit more. We’ll start by rehashing some of the basics. Despite recent improvements, a woman still makes 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2020. That’s a sizeable gap that amounts to more than $10,000 annually. 

Plus women are still less likely to be in senior leadership roles. Women held just 16.9 percent of all global board seats in 2018, according to an analysis by the Deloitte Global Center for Corporate Governance of more than 8,600 companies in 49 countries.

The pandemic has been especially brutal on female workers. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, the National Women’s Law Center reports that over 2.3 million women have left the workforce entirely (compared to 1.8 million men). Women’s labor participation rate is around 57 percent, the lowest it has been since 1988. This is primarily because exhausted and stressed-out female workers took on a disproportionate share of household duties during the pandemic. A McKinsey report revealed that mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an additional three hours per day on housework and childcare.

Remote work was thought to be the great equalizer. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Several studies show women take on more housework and childcare, as we just mentioned. That means female workers, especially working moms, are inundated with distractions from things like changing diapers to laundry to meal planning. Professional men and women without children have the luxury of taking on more unpaid overtime to get ahead, working moms simply can’t do it.

Another crucial aspect of hybrid work inequality is that with more women working remotely, they have less access to informal networks within the physical office. Women already had trouble getting close to mostly male decision-makers before the pandemic, so with more females working from home, the hybrid model may only exacerbate this problem.

It’s not all bad news

There’s a flipside to hybrid work challenges for women. During the pandemic, female employees have enjoyed parts of working from home, and, in multiple surveys, women favor remote work more than men. So, despite the challenges, remote work has significant advantages for women. This is why some have called remote work a “blessing and a curse” for women.

In surveys, women and men cite similar benefits of remote work, such as more flexibility, no commutes, no formal dress code, and lower risk of COVID-19 exposure. But for women, increased flexibility and work/life balance may be the most significant advantage. With women already doing more childcare and housework, remote working arrangements have enabled them to handle those duties in addition to their full-time jobs. 

Some surveys have even indicated this flexibility has allowed many women to stay employed and not drop out of the workforce. Of course, this contradicts other findings, but if women can manage to successfully juggle their  ‘second shift’ of housework and full-time work, it makes sense that remote work arrangements would be beneficial.

It’s certainly not fair that women are still expected to take on so much unpaid labor in the form of childcare and household chores compared to men. But if a female employee can start dinner between answering emails and Zoom meetings, some women may prefer that than being required to be in the office.

The female second shift is a pernicious societal problem that we all need to work on changing. In the meantime, remote and hybrid work may be suitable for female employees while continuing the fight for gender equality.

Steps you can take

Workplace gender inequality is a complicated issue with many contributing factors, including societal and cultural norms. Solutions for inequality that will really help will probably have to be achieved through political means. For example, paid parental leave and subsidized childcare would go a long way to evening the playing field for male and female workers. 

This may seem like more of an HR challenge and not something building owners can’t do much about. However, there are a few things that are within a building manager’s or facility manager’s control. First off, they can help ensure that remote workers don’t fear COVID-19 infections when returning to the office by maintaining a safe and healthy facility. This should be obvious, and there’s no doubt most offices are doing everything they can. But some of the best ways to improve facility safety and health during the pandemic era bear repeating. For example, work on improving building ventilation that can reduce potential virus transmission. The CDC has a comprehensive list on its website, including increasing the percentage of outdoor air ventilation, possibly as high as 100 percent, and using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan/filtration systems with a MERV-13 rating or higher to boost air quality.

Building owners will also want to make visiting the office as easy and seamless as possible for those not there every day. Consider block and stack planning tools when reconfiguring your office space if you don’t already. Stack planning is a macro way to look at how you’re utilizing your space, and it’ll allow you to rearrange large groups of employees in the most efficient way possible.

To ensure social distancing protocols are met, rearrange teams and departments best for hybrid work. Stack planning helps immensely in planning ‘office neighborhoods’ that are ideal for the hybrid workplace. Office neighborhoods are a step beyond the open-office layout of the past, enabling you to set up work areas that are team-specific, activity-specific, or even just open seating. Desk booking software can help accommodate a wide range of possible hybrid work options, such as assigned seating, bookable seating, and open seating.

Last but not least, remote workers need to be considered more when designing and redesigning the office. Full-time in-person workers have the edge, so be sure to level the playing field as much as possible. Invest in high-quality speakers, microphones, and larger conference room video displays, so communication between in-office and remote workers is clear. Also, consider setting up private e-meeting spaces so in-office and remote workers can connect without distractions.

Addressing hybrid work inequalities

The shift to the hybrid work model is the best bet for most companies with new COVID variants and a shift in preferences still keeping people home. But beware of the unintended consequences. Increased gender inequality could be one of these consequences.

Ensure your office doesn’t become the VIP Club of the company, with in-office workers reaping the rewards while remote workers (who may be predominantly female) are left with the scraps. Building owners should team up with HR, IT, and other departments to address hybrid working issues, taking proactive measures to establish an office space and company culture equitable for all. Hybrid work may be here to stay but gender inequality in the workplace doesn’t have to be.

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