Is remote work good for women?

Laetitia@Work #23

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to ponder the question of whether or not the rise of remote work is an opportunity to close the gender gap. There certainly is no clear cut answer to the question “Is remote work good for women?” because it depends on a variety of factors. I personally find the question all the more difficult to answer as I have become biased: I absolutely LOVE working from home and not having to go to an office every day.

On the one hand, the rise of remote work and flexible work options is an opportunity to do away with a corporate culture that favours presenteeism and discriminates against women who need to leave the office early because they have family constraints. If you aren’t stuck in the nine-to-five charade, you can make a better use of your time and be in a better position to balance work and life. And if work is flexible, why would companies discriminate against those who aren’t as present at the office?

But on the other hand, we aren’t equal when it comes to working from home. Remote work amplifies existing inequalities and could even create new ones. At home, women have less time, less space and less leeway to build a career for themselves. Sometimes going to work outside the home is synonymous with more freedom. Also, in a world where office workers and home workers coexist, there’s a risk the latter could be regarded as second-class workers, the same way part-time workers (a majority of whom are women) are already seen as less engaged.

In short it’s going to be hard to answer with a simple “yes” or “no”. So I have a typically French “yes” and “no” answer ready for you 😜

Getting away from the 9-to-5 charade is good, obviously

The debates about the benefits of remote work feel quite personal to me. I personally equate not having to go to an office (and not having a boss) with freedom. There are few things that would make me accept to endure these constraints again. But I realise that this “freedom” is the result of years of investing in a career and building a network. I certainly would not have experienced it as “freedom” at age 25 when all I needed was to meet new people and find out what I wanted to do with my life. Nor would I have experienced it the same way at age 33 with two young children at home.

But naivety aside, there certainly are positive opportunities for women associated with the rise of remote work. Here are three of them:

1. By and large, the 9-to-5 office charade favours extroverts and men. In the physical office, habits and biases produce a “gorilla society” where certain types of people will always have the upper hand. Many years ago I wrote this piece that’s titled “How to survive in our gorilla-take-all society” that is (sadly) still relevant today:

Our human society, like the gorilla society, belongs to the silverback males who are bigger, “strike space-filling postures, produce deeper sounds, thump their chests and exude an air of physical fitness”. A large majority of bosses confirm the above-mentioned stereotype and they all (female bosses included) exude a lot of self-confidence.

Distance and a virtual office are a way to disrupt this “gorilla society”. It gives different people a chance to express themselves (in writing in particular). It’s a way to challenge traditional power structures. Remote work is most effective when power is distributed horizontally. So fundamentally, it favours egalitarian organisations (these are the organisations that work best in remote work situations). And women have a lot to gain from the rise of egalitarian organisations because in hierarchical organisations, there are few of them at the top of the pyramid.

Remote work, especially when it’s asynchronous, leans heavily on written communication. That means fewer chances for being interrupted, at least in the traditional sense. Remote communication, in theory, allows everyone equal opportunity to express their ideas in full without being cut off. (Fast Company)

2. Remote work gives people more control over their time… and their work life balance, which largely benefits women. Juggling domestic chores, parental chores and work is still a challenge when you work from home, but at least you have more control over how to juggle all these things. And you don’t waste as much time (no commute and less pretense work).

According to our survey, female knowledge workers are more likely than male knowledge workers to say the option to work remotely is one of the work perks they would most prefer to be offered (62% vs. 53%) and that home is where they would be the most productive when working (50% vs. 37%). At the same time, female knowledge workers are more likely than male knowledge workers to say they don’t work remotely because their company does not allow it (40% vs. 25%), and that they have quit a job because the company didn’t offer a flexible work schedule (24% vs. 17%). (Fast Company)

In traditional 9-to-5 jobs, the constraints are such that many mothers need to move to part-time positions to juggle work and parental duties. In many countries (France included), part-time positions are filled overwhelmingly by women and they are to be blamed for the gender wealth and pension gaps. Indeed female part-time work is the main reason why so many retired women live in poverty. More remote work opportunities mean that fewer women will be forced into part-time positions, and that’s good news for the pension gap.

3. When flexibility becomes the default in an organisation, there are fewer reasons to discriminate against those who ask for flexibility because they need it the most. If you offer flexible work arrangements to everyone then flexibility is no longer strictly speaking a woman’s issue, and workers cease to pay a price (in terms of pay or promotions) for that flexibility. Companies no longer discriminate against the candidates and employees who ask for it.

As Iris Bohnet writes, “with increased demand for flexibility, we can (and you should) anticipate that competitive labor markets will adjust to employees’ preferences and stop discriminating against people seeking flexibility”.

Naturally, moving to the flexibility default for all positions is not just a way to cater to the feminine workforce. All workers, men included, seek increased flexibility and want to work more autonomously. It’s also a great way to make life easier for dads.

But remote work could also amplify inequalities 😢

I wish I could just say that remote work helps close the gender gap and stop there. But things aren’t that simple. First, many of the jobs occupied by women in proximity services (nurses, nannies, waitresses, cashiers, cleaning women, hairdressers…) do not come with the possibility of remote work. Indeed for the overwhelming majority of the jobs held by women, remote work is irrelevant.

Secondly, as many women who do have jobs that can be done remotely are badly paid and at the bottom of the corporate ladder, they don’t have much autonomy, even when working remotely. There’s digital surveillance (see “How My Boss Monitors Me When I Work From Home”) and the amplification of presenteeism via Zoom (see this article I wrote in French titled “Pourquoi le télétravail peut aggraver le présentéisme”). So more remote work isn’t necessarily a boon.

And there are 3 more reasons to be cautious:

1. Working outside the home is synonymous with freedom for those whose domestic life is a prison. It’s true for women who suffer abuse at home (let’s not forget domestic violence has been on the rise since the beginning of the Covid crisis). It’s also true for those women who need an escape from forced marriages, for example (see this New York Times piece about India). Pursuing economic opportunities outside the home can be the best way to leave a toxic home (permanently or temporarily).

2. Remote work amplifies household inequalities. As domestic constraints fall overwhelmingly on women, work for home situations can be experienced negatively by women. During the lockdown, many women only worked on the kitchen table and were deprived of “a room of their own”. As I wrote in a previous newsletter about the She-cession:

As a consequence, working from home is more of a mixed blessing for women than it is for their male partners (in opposite-sex couples). During the pandemic, female researchers, for example, submitted fewer research papers than their male counterparts (See “Women are getting less research done than men during this coronavirus pandemic”). The same is happening with all knowledge jobs. Working from home will cost women more economically if they have less time and space to do their work at home. They will be less productive. They won’t be promoted as much. They may be forced to work part time. They may lose out on new business opportunities. Their future earnings and opportunities are under threat. 

When Virginia Woolf wrote about the importance for female writers to have “a room of their own” (i.e. physical space and material independence) for their literary creation to be possible, she didn’t know that idea would apply to female accountants and chief marketing officers working from home during a pandemic. But it does apply.

3. In companies where some workers work from home and others are at the office, there’s a risk remote workers will be seen as less engaged. Not as visible and physically present to play political games, they may lose out on pay rises and promotions. Women who ask for a remote work option to look after a child or a parent may then be treated as ‘second-class workers’, exactly like women who work part-time.

During the lockdown, every creative class employee was in the same situation because everyone had to work from home. Therefore colleagues were treated (more or less) equally by their employer. But as soon as you have tier-one employees who continue to clock in and tier-two employees who choose to work from home, then there’s a risk that the latter will have to pay a price in terms of lower wages, less access to critical information and powerful people, fewer promotions…

In short if flexibility is seen only as a way for women to accommodate their family life, then women’s careers will not benefit from remote work. If we want remote work to have a positive impact on the gender gap then it must be shared evenly by men and women, with or without children.

🌳 I’m still in Normandy this month but I’ve had visitors 🤗 My friend and future of work ‘peer’ Samuel Durand came to Normandy with a crew of video professionals to start a documentary about the future of work. I’m very happy he asked me to be in it! If you want to know more, subscribe to his Billet du futur (in French).

For Nouveau départ (in French), Nicolas and I recorded new “à deux voix” conversations (in French): Ce que Castex nous dit de la sociologie des élites françaises, Quel avenir pour la Silicon Valley ?, Immigration : changer de perspective… Tomorrow we’ll publish one with our views on the ‘passion economy’.  Subscribe here (for €15/month or €150/year) to listen to our podcasts.

For Welcome to the Jungle, I’ve written an ebook about France’s elitist school system and recruiting. I loved writing it! 🇫🇷 Recrutement : la fin du règne des diplômes 📜


  • 🍒 The death of the bra: will the great lingerie liberation of lockdown last?, Emine Saner, The Guardian, July 2020: “Lockdown has changed a lot of things about the way we present ourselves to the world, and for many women, ditching their bra has been a particularly popular one. “I just don’t see bras making a comeback after this,” tweeted the Buzzfeed writer Tomi Obaro in May. Her tweet has been “liked” more than half a million times.”

  • 🇫🇷 France, As Revealed by its Elite, Nicolas Colin, European Straits #181, July 2020: “Mathematics is the key to climbing up the ladder. (…) [Students] only make the detour through math because they want to reach the top of either government or the business world. When they’ve finally arrived, they forget it all in an instant. And so mathematics in France stays just that: a springboard to higher realms.”

  • 😷 The Future of Work Isn’t What People Think It Is, Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah, The New York Times, July 2020: “The work force that powers our economy today — in times of stability and in crisis — is a low-wage service work force that is disproportionately made up of black women and other women of color, and largely unprotected by our safety net. These workers take care of us in different ways, and it took a pandemic for the nation to recognize they are the critical engine of our economy.”

That’s all for today. I’ll be back in your mailbox in two weeks before a much-awaited summer break in August! 💌