Could the post-pandemic, hybrid workplace boost gender equality?

While flexible work polices have been praised for bolstering diversity in the workforce, when it comes to gender parity, it's unclear how much they'll help.

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As the world enters its third year of dealing with COVID-19, the landscape for office-based employees is almost unrecognizable. And as flexible work plans become the new normal, for many workers daily commutes, chats in the office kitchen, and loud colleagues are a thing of the past.

Even as the world celebrates International Women's Day today, however, some things haven’t changed when it comes to the workplace experiences faced by women working in the tech industry. While flexible work and the emerging hybrid office have ushered in a new perspective on both where and how people work, initial research indicates women now face bigger barriers than ever before.

Global state of women in the workforce

Worldwide, women make up around 39% of the labor force. But research published by McKinsey in 2020 found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, their jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to disruption, and would account for 54% of overall job losses.

According to McKinsey, one reason for that disparity was the increased burden of unpaid care, which is still disproportionately carried by women. A follow-up McKinsey report in 2021 found that while all women were disproprotionately affected by the pandemic, three groups experienced some of the largest challenges: working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women. That was especially true for parents with children under 10; women in this group considered leaving the workforce at a rate that was 10 percentage points higher than men.

While the pandemic normalized work from home, there was no avoiding the greater expectations for care-giving placed on women, said Amy Loomis, research director, Future of Work at IDC.

Loomis also noted that just because everyone was working from home, that didn't mean everyone was suddenly on an equal footing. “If both halves of a couple are working from home, who gets the office and who gets the kitchen table?” she said. “Yes, being in the tech sector made it easier for everyone to work remotely or in a hybrid fashion, but it’s the 'and' part that differentiates women’s experiences.”

Though the tech sector was not immune to pandemic pressures, Deloitte in December reported the inherently flexible nature of the industry and its ability to pivot quickly to remote work kept female job losses to a minimum. That, coupled with a tech industry recovery that began earlier than in other industries, helped many companies maintain progress on gender equity — especially those with workforce diversity pledges and prior commitments to diversity.

Still, according to Skillsoft’s 2021 Women in Tech Report, there remains a gap between the workplace benefits women in tech want and what companies provide. When asked about opportunities for professional development and training, 86% of respondents said they are extremely or very important to them. But just 42% said their employers currently offer that benefit. (And when asked about the top challenges they have faced in a tech-related career, nearly a third of women pointed to a lack of training.)

Skillsoft also found that 70% of women said men outnumber them in the workplace at ratios of two-to-one or greater.

Can hybrid work benefit women in tech long-term?

Traditionally, one of the biggest barriers to women entering the labor market has been balancing the burden of care with needing to spend five days a week in the office. The rise of hybrid and remote working models has changed that equation, opening the workforce to people who had been excluded because they couldn't be physically present in the office.

Research has shown that most workers want to be able to work from home in some capacity in the future, with some even saying they would quit their current job or take a pay cut to do so.

Research from City & Guilds found that when looking for a new job, 53% of working age women in the UK prioritized flexibility, compared to just 38% of men. And 65% of women said a good work-life balance is important, compared to 57% of men who felt that way.

While offering flexible work options gives companies access to a more diverse talent pool, doing so without clear boundaries can have a negative impact on female employees. In short, it can turn flexible work into “always on” work. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 study found that more than a third of employees felt they needed to be available for work 24/7, and almost half believed they need to work long hours to get ahead.

The problem has been particularly amplified among working mothers who've always worked a so-called “double shift” — a full day of work, followed by hours at home caring for children and doing household labor.

McKinsey also found that during the pandemic women suffered burnout at higher rates than men, with the gap in burnout between the two groups almost doubling. In the past year, one in three women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career.

Loomis said employers can do several things to help women avoid burnout, such as focusing on work outcomes instead of specific work schedules and encouraging women to support each other by sharing life hacks, resources, and guidance. Organizations can also provide collaboration tools to support asynchronous and synchronous mobile work and ways to accommodate “work in motion” — performing tasks from the doctor's waiting room or another remote or home office location.

Tackling proximity bias

Aside from burnout, another big challenge facing underrepresented groups is the threat of proximity bias (where being in the office is seen as a better career move). Slack’s Future Forum Pulse report, published in January, found that 84% of men work in the office all or some of the time, compared to 79% of women. For working parents, 75% work remotely or hybrid, compared to 63% of non-parents.

Loomis said there are a lot of initiatives companies can use to make “out of sight, out of mind” habits go away. Ensuring that all employees feel like they have equal opportunities to communicate and engage with colleagues can do a lot to reduce any stigma from those working remotely.

“We call this a 'parity of experience,' and many technology companies are focused on building the hardware and software tools to enable that,” she said.

Technology that relies on artificial intelligence to look for bias is getting better at ensuring there are broader candidate pools for jobs. And it can help make sure policies do not exclude individuals or disproportionally impact them.

“Expectations to improve employee experience in general and the experience of women and underrepresented minorities in particular are very high right now,” Loomis said. “The ball is in the court of employers to address these systemic issues using the technologies at their disposal to mitigate the broader challenges that we are seeing in turbulent times.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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