Will The WFH Revolution Leave Female Leaders Behind?

CEOs have a rare opportunity to rebalance the scales for male and female workers and cultivate a thoughtful, family-friendly perspective.

Remote work has long been touted as a means for female workers to balance their career and family responsibilities. The benefits are evident; women can forego their commutes and spend more time with their families, save on childcare costs and arrange their flexible work schedules around their parenting obligations.

But in the isolation and chaos of Covid-19, those benefits seem to have dried up — or worse, turned toxic. With childcare on hold and schools gone virtual, the remote working arrangements that were once considered to be the dream for working parents have become downright nightmarish. According to a recent survey conducted by the HR analytics company Syndio, an incredible 14 percent of women are considering quitting their jobs because of work-family conflicts relating to Covid-19.

As shocking as this statistic might seem at first glance, it becomes all too understandable when you consider the circumstances and research at hand. Nearly 80 percent of dual-career working parents used some form of paid childcare before COVID-19 — but once mass closures began, two-thirds of working mothers reported becoming the sole caregivers for their children. Moreover, past research has indicated that women are more likely than men to try to carry out more domestic obligations while working remotely.

But this tendency to take on more domestic responsibilities while working at home exacts a toll. As social researchers Herminia Ibarra, Julia Gillard, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently concluded in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “The additional burden of working from home while juggling child care, virtual schooling, and other household responsibilities is compounding stress in women’s personal and professional lives.”

One mother and survey respondent summarized her experience like this: “It’s difficult to work while managing teenage angst, assisting with 4th grade projects, learning all of the technology, feeding a family of five three times a day, and dealing with new work-related chaos.”

The resources that were once there to support working moms — childcare, school, after-school programs, neighborhood babysitters, and grandparents — are no longer readily accessible. Is it any wonder that professional women are trying to unburden their schedules, even if doing so means giving up their jobs?

But as reasonable as the decision to step out of the workforce may be, a mass exodus could have significant long-term consequences. Past research tells us that mothers who stop working for a few years often face challenges upon their return.

“Leaving the workforce does stall their careers, and it takes them longer to achieve career success,” Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), recently commented for Fortune.

An en masse exit of overburdened mothers from the workforce could also inadvertently step back progress for gender parity in the workforce as a whole.

According to research findings from SHRM, the 80-cents-on-the-dollar gender pay gap widens for working mothers; earnings lost during even a short absence tend to compound over time. Another 2018 report from the IWPR found that annual earnings for women who took a yearlong absence from the workforce between 2001 and 2015 were, on average, 39 percent lower than earnings reported for the women who worked all 15 years uninterrupted.

The knee-jerk reaction to these statistics might be to encourage women to stay at work, bear out the difficulties of a Covid-19 remote environment, and hope for a swift end to the pandemic. But even this plan has its flaws.

For one, women who work from home may appear less present and engaged in their work. One study recapped in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review found that while professional men with and without children and women without children tend to increase their unpaid overtime hours when allowed flexible working arrangements, professional women with children do not — presumably because they take on the brunt of a household’s domestic responsibilities.

Over time, this unfair perception of disengagement may inadvertently harm working mothers’ abilities to climb the corporate ladder and limit their access to growth opportunities.

“Will the new environment exacerbate existing disparities, with women likely to be only in the formal, official channels of communication and left out of the myriad subsets of conversations that shape decisions?” Ibarra, Gillard, and Chamorro-Premuzic lament in their above-mentioned article. 

“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 [physically] present, disproportionately harming women.”

We face a seemingly impossible situation. During Covid-19, the pressure on working women to balance their work and family responsibilities is near-untenable. Overburdened mothers need to leave the workforce to support their families and protect themselves from burnout — but if they do, they may end up inadvertently hamstringing their careers and accelerating pay inequities. Yet, if they continue to sign in to work remotely, they face being undervalued and passed over.

So, given the current circumstances and the increasing likelihood that Covid-19 will usher in a new era of remote-friendly work, how can we protect and support women in the workplace?

As it turns out, we currently face a rare opportunity to rebalance the scales for male and female workers and cultivate a thoughtful, family-friendly perspective in the business world at large.

The first step to accomplishing these goals is to foster more acceptance of and expectations for men as working parents. With childcare resources suddenly out of reach, male workers have had the chance to develop a new understanding of how heavy childcare burdens are.

According to a recent survey conducted by the culture consultancy Have Her Back, twice as many fathers as mothers viewed caregiving during the lockdown as “extremely difficult,” and 38 percent “very strongly agreed” that they should be taking on a larger share of the unpaid work at home.

As Have Her Back researchers conclude: “While mothers have always had to share most of the burden of child-caregiving, this demonstrates just how unaware fathers may have been to the difficulty of that role and the importance of resources such as child daycare, the educational system and employer benefits policies that help working women.”

It is worth noting that many working men want to equalize work-home responsibility-sharing, as well.

“We hear all the time from men whose organizations have outdated leave policies that give the ‘primary caregiver’ months off but give far less time off to the ‘secondary caregiver,’” social researcher Joan C. Williams shared in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “We’re all seeing how the pandemic can serve to level the playing field as some men take on more domestic responsibilities than they used to.”

As businesses continue to navigate working norms during the pandemic and move towards a remote-based future, they should consider the steps they can take to be genuinely women- and family-friendly.

These may include destigmatizing family leave for men, thereby recognizing them as equal caregivers, facilitating a more equitable distribution of domestic work, and allowing women to pursue their careers without burning themselves out from overwork. Business leaders should also proactively audit their remote work policies for any potential bias against working parents, clarify their promotion processes, and uphold the importance of female inclusion in project and policy conversations. Finally, businesses of all industries should establish a path for women to return to work if they need to take a brief absence from the workforce to support their families during Covid-19.

Despite all of the challenges that Covid-19 has given us, we can — and should — view this time as an opportunity to pursue gender parity in the workplace.

Debrah Lee Charatan
Debrah Lee Charatan is the president and principal of BCB Property Management, a Manhattan real estate firm. She is also a co-founder for the Charatan Family Foundation and serves as a donor for a number of charitable organizations in New York City.