How working from home is removing physical biases for women in the workplace
For decades, women in the workplace have changed their physical appearance in an effort to move the needle on their professional success. As females entered the workforce in greater numbers in the mid-20th century—thanks to two world wars and the women’s rights movement—their clothing often took on masculine flair. Male-inspired clothing helped women blend in with their male colleagues.
And when women began to achieve positions of greater power at work, they began to change their style of dress— literally dressing to take up more physical space in order to appear closer to the size of their male counterparts. Women needed a new look to fit in with the male-dominated industries, and in the 1980s, it took the form of shoulder pads and boxy suits that mimicked those worn by their male counterparts. As Austyn Zung, the Creative Director of women’s workwear line Ann Taylor, puts it, women were essentially saying, “Look at this, I can do the job you can do, and so I’ll dress as you do.”
In recent years, the focus on women’s physique has shifted from matching that of their male colleagues to emphasizing their strengths. Society, and, in large part, the media, now encourage women to show off their physical prowess by wearing things that reveal their toned arms or legs. Their appearances—from the physical volume of space they take up to the makeup they wear and the way they dress and carry themselves—have an impact on their professional achievement. But that’s changing.
Around the world, the coronavirus crisis has forced millions of workers to work from home. This has changed how all employees show up, physically, for work. But this is especially true for women. No longer sitting around the table in the conference room, they’re now more likely to be at their kitchen tables or in their home offices, their physical appearance matters less. In turn, women feel more empowered, heard, and seen, and are better at doing their jobs.
Why this matters comes down to the fact that the way we look—from our physique to our hair to our clothes—matters at work. Research shows that a woman’s height significantly affects how much they earn. In fact, a recent study found that being just five-inches taller can lead to an increase in earnings of nearly $150,000 over a 30-year career period.
Since women are, on average, shorter than men, this puts women at a physical disadvantage when they’re alongside their male colleagues. Sure, some women are considered ‘tall,’ but the average man stands at 5’9”, while women come in at just 5’4”. This means that working from home—an environment where stature is much less evident—can significantly reduce unconscious height-related bias against women.
The leveling nature of virtual work
It’s not just that working from home levels the physical playing field. Certain conditions of homework, like asynchronous communication, video conferencing, and (thanks to the disappearing commute) more overall time, are all leveling the working field in different ways.
Asynchronous communication, like email or chat, tends to help women feel more comfortable expressing their opinions and full thoughts with greater ease. Women often struggle to be heard in meetings, but asynchronous communication makes it nearly impossible for male co-workers to interrupt or talk over them.
As for the meetings themselves, virtual conferences make it more difficult to demonstrate physical bias. With participants no longer sitting around a table, everyone occupies the same sized squares on the screen.
“There’s a different cadence of communication on video calls,” says Karen Peterson, CMO of Lendio. “You never have sidebars, and people have to take their turn to speak. For anyone who might struggle or be hesitant sometimes, it allows them to have their time and a voice—an added value for a woman in a room with a lot of men.”
Peterson says she has noticed that in virtual meetings, people pay closer attention to whoever is speaking. While this makes for a smoother, more productive meeting for everyone, women benefit the most from this new dynamic.
“Working virtually has created a dynamic where people are more present because only one person is speaking at a time,” she says.
Jenny Dingus, RingCentral’s Associate Vice President of Customer Experience and Retention, says working from home has allowed her to level the playing field in another way. In an office setting, Dingus, like other women, is expected to present herself in a certain way—she calls it “buttoned up.” But when she attends a meeting at 2 p.m., she looks the same as she did when she walked into the office at 9 a.m. The expectation that any employee will be dressed up and put together at 2 p.m. while working from home—let alone 9 a.m.!—has evaporated over the last several months.
“I could never find time to work out and come home and shower and get to work,” she says. “Working from home, it’s fine if I have wet hair.”
Dingus says how women show up physically has become a choice instead of an obligation. Some women still want to dry their hair or put on makeup before a meeting, and some women don’t. What’s important is that there’s no longer an expectation.
Faiza Hughell, the Senior Vice President of Small Business at RingCentral, still chooses to ‘get ready’ every day. But she says everyone now has the power to define their own routine.
“I don’t think everybody’s expected to be fully polished, but I wake up and do full hair and makeup every day as if I were going into the office,” she explains. “For my mental well-being, it’s important for me to stay in a routine—I know some people who are wearing sweatpants all day and not showering, but it’s about finding what works for you.”
Though she’s not wearing sweatpants every day, DataEndure CMO Kirstin Burke hasn’t blow-dried her hair in more than three months. “At first, I was hesitant to be on video so much—I thought, ‘I’ve got to get ready and wear a nice shirt,’” she says. “But you just have to find the right balance for you when you’re working from home,” she says.
Rather than trying to take up more physical space or look a certain way to fit societal expectations, women who work from home can write their own rules and routines because their physique just doesn’t matter as much when they’re working virtually.
Remote work leads to more success for women
Given the leveling benefits women enjoy when working from home, it’s no surprise that women are more likely than men to lead fully remote companies.
According to Alice Hendricks, the CEO of Jackson River, LLC, a fully remote software company, for women, working remotely allows them to do away with the idea of playing the part of a leader who looks a certain way.
“Instead, they get on with the business of running teams, producing results, and being the leaders that their companies need,” she says.
Working from home gives women the choice of how they look at work, changes how they communicate, and removes physical bias. So it’s no surprise that women are embracing the idea of working from home. And companies will likely reap the benefits of empowering their employees to work from home, too. After all, when we remove the need for women to satisfy certain societal obligations around their appearance and personality, they can focus on their work. At which point, their blow dryers, height, and clothing all become choices—not necessities.
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Originally published Feb 12, 2021, updated Feb 17, 2021