Are we headed towards a “she-cession”?
Catherine Mann, Bank of England policymaker, spoke last year at an FN100 Women in Finance event and commented on how remote or ‘homeworking’ environments could be detrimental to women’s career progression, stating:
“There’s a potential for two tracks, those on the physical and those on the virtual. We know who will be on which.”
And she's right. Statistically, more women than men are working at home. But, more women want to work from home, an important but perhaps complicated distinction, given that women are still completing 60% more unpaid labour in the UK.
Could what women need today, flexible working environments to fulfil personal and familial duties, actually be damaging career prospects? Or are we simply seeing a greater shift towards personal autonomy, one that most women find more beneficial than full-time office work?
We explore how career development within organisations is impacting women below
Do women prefer a flexible working environment?
Firstly, the generalisation that all women want a singular thing, like an unmovable collective, is inherently flawed. A women’s preference for home vs office working may depend on role type, industry, personality, and age.
However, data does suggest that most women highly value flexible working arrangements.
A recent study by Flexjobs shows that 80% of women ranked remote work as a top job benefit, compared with 69% of men.
For many women, the benefits are vast, including no commute (87%), not having to dress formally (70%), more flexibility over work schedule (60%) and more time to take care of themselves (57%).
In contrast, when looking at the challenges of remote work, the poll highlights an interesting perspective.
Although the data doesn’t specifically reference career development, concerns around managing relationships and communication are evident for both men and women. And it’s interesting to note that these factors are seen slightly more negatively by men, which may reflect work priorities.
The risk is that while remote career development may be difficult for both men and women, given the additional struggles women face in promotion, homeworking may be exasperating a problem that already exists.
However, an important question to ask is, does flexible working really affect career progression?
How Impactful Is Visibility for Career Development?
According to some research, like this Stanford study, remote working has a directly negative correlation to promotion rate when compared to in-office workers.
Commenting on the study, Nicholas A. Bloom writes that remote workers “didn’t develop relationships and managerial skills as readily, or didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate those skills.”.
This could be due to various perceived advantages of working in an office surrounded by other colleagues, such as:
Visual evidence of collaboration
Greater creativity (as suggested by some studies)
Stronger coworker relations
Physical participation in company culture
What the above suggests is that the largest contributing factor to promotion rate may simply be visibility, reinforcing the idea of 'out of sight, out of mind'.
To further emphasise this point, a 2019 paper conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that being observed by others while at work resulted in positive outcomes for employees "because it is a strong signal of their commitment to their job, their team and their organisation".
Many of these aspects, such as commitment, are hugely considered when management teams select individuals worthy of a promotion. Additionally, because concepts like ‘commitment’ aren’t always tangible, judgement on individual commitment may often come down to personal opinion.
When we look at women’s career progression, in particular, the picture becomes bleaker. Bloom comments:
“If you look at who wants to work from home, it’s not random. People with disabilities, people with children and women all tend to have a higher preference for more days working from home… Women who are at home with children fall behind, and don’t get promoted. A few years down the line, there’s a lack of diversity in leadership.”
This doesn’t sound too distant from Mann’s prediction of a “she-cession”. But has the pandemic levelled out the playing field? Yes and no.
In one respect, companies have been forced to adjust to employees working from home. This means investing in more tech stacks focused on better online communications, project management, reporting, analytics and more.
These tools aren’t only increasing the visibility of workers at home but provide evidence that work can be just as productive outside of the office.
How Can Companies Improve their Flexible Working Policies?
Many companies have to face the reality that remote working isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, by not adapting to this organisational want, they risk losing valuable in-house talent, especially amongst women.
“In a recent LinkedIn survey, almost a quarter (23%) of the women surveyed said they are more likely to leave their role since their employers started enforcing back-to-office policies.”
However, offering flexible working isn’t enough. Both women and men need to feel supported within those spaces and feel they are on equal footing for career advancement as those who work in the office.
Both role type and individual company ethos play a huge role in flexible working policies. For instance, companies based in tech are adapting very fast due to an already-heavy preference for digital work, with many already implementing remote work pre-covid. Other companies like Mastercard are also revolutionising how they see work,
“Results, not hours, count at Mastercard. We seek to embed flexibility to enable all employees to balance work demands with personal responsibilities."
Typically, in these instances where remote work has been embraced at the top stakeholder level, promotion for remote workers isn’t as much of a challenge. This is because companies have designed workforce structures with remote working in mind and, therefore, are less likely to install bias, be it unconscious or not.
Instead of physical visibility, monitoring promotion on tangible evidence like skill development, project satisfaction, and more can be more accurate performance indicators. In essence, all things that can be achieved in a remote working environment.
However, for more traditional career pathways, like financial services, evolution is certainly slower or even impractical.
For companies that do want to encourage remote practice, they can start by:
Implementing more effective communication platforms.
Encouraging remote working culture.
Monitoring promotion rate against aspects that don’t favour in-office workers, e.g. skill development.
Maintaining an empathetic view of the balance between personal and professional lives.
Hiring external consultants to aid organisational redesign or digitalisation.
When the right organisational structures are in place, “visibility” can be just as effective in a remote location.
And that’s where the onus should be; building effective organisational structures for remote workforces.
So, Are Flexible Working Structures Impacting the Promotion Rate of Women?
For many women, flexible working presents a unique challenge.
There are clearly concerns surrounding the long-term implications of fewer women in the public work sphere and women becoming more burdened by at-home “obligations”. But it’s difficult to argue that remote working doesn’t offer a healthier balance between most women’s personal and professional lives.
Perhaps, the more important point to make is that flexible working structures shouldn’t impact career development. And for companies that want to ensure this is the case, important organisational pathways need to be built around remote promotion.
The core consideration should always be choice. When companies allow their employees to choose what works best for their schedule, productivity and employee happiness increase, which in turn can help drive further diversity and inclusion.