Experts haven’t been shy about how they think COVID-19 will impact gender inequality in the workplace. Some claim remote work is better for women, optimistic the pandemic’s end will usher in a work from home (WFH) 2.0 era where inclusive, equitable workplaces become the norm. Others caution WFH 2.0 won’t help gender inequality in the workplace and might make it worse.
But forget the experts for a moment. What do workers have to say about their experience with working remotely during COVID-19? And what can business leaders learn about building inclusive cultures for their hybrid or even fully remote workplaces?
We asked 4,000 professionals about their experience working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results, published in our “Is remote work sustainable?” report, shed some light on how gender inequality in the workplace plays out when working remotely. The study found:
- Fewer women (48%) reported good or better mental health than men (58%).
- More women (46%) reported struggling with group work than men (37%).
Business and team leaders need to keep these findings in mind as they build hybrid remote workplaces. The WFH 2.0 era complicates some of the challenges women already face, but when leaders proactively address these issues, they build cultures that support all employees’ health and well-being.
1. Gender inequality in the workplace starts at home
For many women, coming home from work is not the end of the day but the start of a second shift, specifically, one where they carry the highest mental load and do the most emotional labor of anyone else in their households. Without the transition between office and home, boundaries blur, making women feel like they’re always on the clock.
“The escape of getting out of the place where, no matter what you do for a living, you’re the CEO 24/7… was a reprieve,” said Tara Furiani, CEO of people strategy consultancy Not the HR Lady. “But now, the screaming, banging, and otherwise lack of acceptance that you’re actually still working is unavoidable.”
A mom of seven, Furiani is among the approximately 66% of the United States’ 23.5 million women who work full-time while raising children younger than 18 years old. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when women work from home while their children also learn from home, their workload expands rapidly.
The escape of getting out of the place where, no matter what you do for a living, you’re the CEO of 24/7, was a reprieve.
“Women working remotely face the added challenge of having to be constantly interrupted by their demanding and impatient ‘mini-bosses,’ aka children,” said Marissa Haddad, vice president of customer success as 321 Ignition, a website platform for car dealerships.
Those like Haddad have lots to juggle. “[Computer] technical difficulties, homework help, breakfast time, bathroom wipes, sibling fights, lunchtime, loads of laundry … all while preparing for meetings and remaining engaged and composed on calls,” she said.
But it’s not just women with children who face gender inequality in the workplace, whether at home or at the office. Gallup shows the distribution of household tasks has improved in the last 25 years, but day-to-day chores like laundry, meals, and cleaning still disproportionately fall on women. Men, meanwhile, largely take on duties with gaps between them, like yard work and auto maintenance.
This uneven distribution of labor continues to drive gender inequality. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that American women average 5.7 hours of unpaid household and care work per day. That’s 2.1 more hours than men, who average 3.6 hours per day.
How leaders can help
Create a WFH policy that makes expectations as clear and transparent as possible. It should define things such as:
- Your communication policy. For instance, what are the availability and working hours you expect from your team? Do people need to download the team’s messaging app to their smartphones?
- How you will set, measure, and review goals. Will you set goals quarterly or monthly? Will you adjust them based on weekly one-on-ones or maybe team-wide sprints?
- When and where team members should escalate issues. How will you handle conflicts should they arise? Does your process give team members confidence that their concerns will be handled fairly and anonymously?
The clearer you set work expectations in your WFH policy, the more you undo gender inequality in the workplace. Clear expectations help your team shift from a time-spent to a results-based mindset. This is especially important for women, whose mental loads mean an ongoing battle with ambiguity and distraction.
Researchers put it like this in Harvard Business Review (HBR): “Unless companies learn to evaluate output, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on, a world of mostly remote work may increase organizations’ bias for rewarding those who are present, disproportionately harming women.”
The long-term promise of working remotely gets better with time as women allow themselves to balance outcomes rather than watch the clock.
By making work expectations as clear and transparent as possible, women working remotely can gradually gain confidence that it’s their work done, not time spent, that makes them valuable.
“The long-term promise of working remotely gets better with time as women allow themselves to balance outcomes rather than watch the clock,” said Allison Hartsoe, CEO of Ambition Data and one of Analytics Insight magazine’s top 100 women in tech.
2. Fewer outlets compound WFH stress
Not long into the pandemic, workers started taking fake commutes. It makes sense. Commuting creates a psychological transition between home and work. But with no office to go to during the pandemic, many women lost the built-in compartmentalization that came with their previous routines.
“Women slip in and out of a lot of roles, and sometimes the physical change of where we are allows us to change roles more easily,” Hartsoe said. “For example, dropping off kids at school is the mom role, but then arriving at work we shift into the work role.”
The COVID WFH environment left little room for serotonin and lots of room for stress.
But the problem is more complex than no longer having an office to go to. Yelp estimates that 60% of the small businesses that closed due to COVID-19 won’t reopen. That’s a lot of gyms, restaurants, and other outlets employees no longer have, not to mention limited travel options.
And since the responsibilities of home disproportionately fall on women, a loss of outlets to relieve the stress of home has disproportionately impacted women more during COVID-19.
“The COVID WFH environment left little room for serotonin and lots of room for stress,” said Ginger Woolridge, head of growth at Lightyear, a procurement platform for IT and telecom services. “In the U.S. especially, people’s self-worth and identity is heavily tied to their job, while actual lives and hobbies almost always take a back seat.”
During COVID-19, many hobbies and interests don’t even get a back seat. With so many outlets for dealing with stress suddenly gone, home becomes a pressure-cooker.
How leaders can help
The mental health impact of COVID-19 underscores how remote employees need wellness support as much as those employees at the office. They need the social outlets that come with feeling connected to teammates. Likewise, remote workers need access to outlets outside of the home that help them decompress and recharge.
First, use meetings strategically to create social connections. For instance, in your meeting agenda, set aside the first few minutes to chat. Schedule purely social meetings, too, such as weekly craft hours via a video conference on Fridays. Go bigger by approaching these virtual meetings as internal events unique to your culture or industry, like how gaming PC manufacturer NZXT throws video game tournaments.
Second, incentivize remote workers to stay healthy. Expand your thinking on what counts as health and wellness, too. Webflow, a no-code platform for building interactive websites, provides wellness stipends to its 70% remote team through Compt. That enables employees to buy hiking equipment, mental health apps, and even massages. Also, consider gestures such as letting employees expense $50 monthly, so they can have lunch with a friend, or take paid days off for volunteering.
Third, help remote employees create the office experience they need to be most productive. Companies like Shopify and Twitter now give new remote workers $1,000 WFH stipends to set up their home offices. Equipment like height-adjustable desks, ergonomic chairs, and second monitors are about more than comfort. Having a dedicated and comfortable workspace can help employees mentally transition in and out of work.
3. Group collaboration doesn’t feel all that collaborative
Remote work leaves women vulnerable to shouldering more of the mental load and emotional labor involved in team collaboration, just like they do at home. This feeds gender inequality in the workplace by creating a dynamic where women do a disproportionately greater amount of work to help the team as a whole. Male colleagues get more headspace for strategic thinking, making them more likely to be recognized for their individual success.
“There are so many additional elements to remote work that are essential but that don’t fall within the specific job description and so [they] invariably fall to women, such as organizational tasks and enabling effective communication,” said Polly Kay, senior marketing manager at English Blinds.
Renee Cullinan, co-founder and CEO of Stop Meeting Like This consulting, helps explain why women are more likely to trade their own success for team success. She points to research showing women are more likely to agree that stopping and helping a colleague is an example of being a good teammate. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to agree that focusing on their individual role is an example of being a good teammate.
There are so many additional elements to remote work that are essential but that don’t fall within the specific job description and so [they] invariably fall to women.
On top of that, women are less likely to dedicate time to their individual priorities and more likely to give that time up when the team needs something. When companies aren’t mindful about this, men gravitate toward status-building work that leads to advancement, and women take on more non-promotable tasks. That empowers men’s voices while diminishing women’s.
“Women may report struggling with group work as they can sometimes have a harder time speaking up for themselves, which may be exacerbated when not working in person,” said Dr. Tamar Blank, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Riverdale Psychology.
Or, as Lightyear’s Woolridge puts it, “If you have trouble getting your opinion out there in an in-person meeting, good luck getting it across on [a video] meeting.”
How leaders can help
Correcting gender inequality in the workplace requires intentional effort, and it needs to be visible from the top down, so employees know the effort is sincere and credible. Start by charging leaders to include women’s voices in meetings.
David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson, authors of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, point out how women are socialized to hold back their voice until a clear break in conversation occurs. The authors recommend male leaders and colleagues work to make these breaks recognizable and bring women’s voices to them. That can be as simple as, “I think Sarah has some experience here we could all learn from.”
And since remote communication can make those breaks less clear, give your team high-quality video conferencing software, so conversations can flow naturally. Look for features such as 99.99% uptime and carrier-grade reliability over a global network. That’ll help prevent lag, jitter, and other connectivity issues that disrupt tone and body language.
4. Uncertainty leads to overworking
Women aren’t better at multitasking than men — they just do more. This creates gender inequality in the workplace because when faced with poor visibility or communication on what their colleagues are doing, many women compensate by working more. Ever been the student who did all the work and let your team take credit just to know the project got done?
“Communication styles vary and women may feel more burdened to do more than their share as they cannot see actively what their coworkers are working on or their process,” said Catherine Way, marketing manager at Prime Plus Mortgages.
I want to be a positive role model, a supportive wife, a loving mother, a good friend — all day every day — and that leaves me mentally exhausted and frustrated, now more than ever.
Research backs that up. Yale reports moms work 33 minutes more per day than dads when their children are present at home. Now add the 2.1 more hours of daily household work women put in mentioned earlier (not to mention the leisure gap that gives men 30 more minutes of free time each day on average). It’s not hard to see how working remotely makes women feel always on.
To make things more trying, this scenario feeds the people-pleasing trap many women struggle with at home and at work.
“I think that can be specific to women because we do it to ourselves. I want to be a positive role model, a supportive wife, a loving mother, a good friend — all day every day — and that leaves me mentally exhausted and frustrated, now more than ever,” said Lisha Dunlap, senior PR associate at the University of Advancing Technology, one of the United States’ few 100% STEM-based universities.
How leaders can help
Make technology your ally in flattening gender inequality in the workplace. Give your teams platforms that 1) centralize as many tools and processes as possible in one place, and 2) visualize shared workflows, so everyone can see how projects are progressing. For instance, pick an instant messaging tool with a shared team calendar for visibility and Asana integration for tracking workflows. Even better, start with free team messaging and video chat that gives you the option to roll in calling later.
Reduce gender inequality in the workplace by building a connected culture
The challenges women face in the workplace, both remote and at the office, require intention and effort to solve. They also require a big-picture perspective and long-term thinking. Our “Is remote work sustainable?” report found that the companies doing the best through COVID-19 were those that invested in building a “connected culture.”
By that, we mean these companies did more than give employees better tools for communicating and collaborating remotely. They took it further by using those new tools to get employees interacting with each other. The result: higher levels of employee productivity and well-being to the point where 71% said they feel more connected to their teammates than before the pandemic.
For those like Lightyear’s Woolridge, that’s cause for optimism.
“I hope that in 2021, as teams now have adequate work from home practices in place (no more 8 pm Friday calls just because ‘no one has anything else going on’) and employers feel more security in their business model surviving the pandemic (they made it this far, right?), [it] will lead to a healthier WFH environment.”
Learn more about the challenges and solutions to building a hybrid remote workplace by reading our “Is remote work sustainable?” report
Originally published Feb 22, 2021, updated Feb 23, 2021