For Women, Working From Home Comes With Strings
As International Women's Day kicked off the week, we witnessed the usual display of support towards women, together with messages from well-intentioned women that we can have it all. We can have a career and a family. And why couldn't we? It is 2021! Of course, we can have both if we want to.
When we look at some of the employment numbers that came out of the pandemic, however, it is clear that many women are still asked to choose between being a caregiver or having a career.
Based on a Brookings analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data, before COVID-19, 46% of all working women worked in jobs paying low wages, with median earnings of only $10.93 per hour. The burden of working in lower-paying jobs disproportionally impacts Black women (54%) and Hispanic or Latina women (64%) compared to the 40% among white women. Women are much more likely than men to work in low-paying jobs: 37% of working men earn low hourly wages. Some of the difference between men and women is rooted in women's choices before or during their careers. Women, more often than men, chose an educational path that leads to lower-paying occupations. At work, some women might put flexible hours over salary to fulfill their caregiving duties.
During the lockdown, an astonishing proportion of Americans lost their jobs. Lay-offs significantly affected low-wage professions and face-to-face jobs that were not frontline occupations, such as healthcare support and grocery workers. Because of their concertation in low-wage and face-to-face jobs, women were impacted especially hard. So much so that this recession has been dubbed a "shecession." If women did not lose their job, they might have had to let them go because they needed to look after kids and other family members. Their lower-paying jobs made their career disposable.
In November 2020, Creative Strategies surveyed 612 Americans working from home during the pandemic. Part of the study highlights a few of the difficulties faced during the pandemic by women lucky enough to be able to work from home.
One aspect of the pandemic almost everyone seems to agree on is that being at home trying to work increased empathy for each other. This, coupled with the well-known fact that most caregivers are women, makes the first finding particularly surprising. Only 20% of the women in the study said to strongly agree with the statement, "my manager is supportive of my role as a parent/caregiver.” Another 25% said to agree with the statement. Yet, 28% of men strongly agree and another 30% agree with the same statement. Maybe because they do not feel supported by their managers, more women (19%) than men (12%) said to strongly agree with the statement, "I don't talk about my kids/dependent at work because I worry about being seen as unprofessional/unreliable." Another 18% of women said to agree with the statement compared to only 10% of men.
When companies are putting a more significant emphasis on empathy and caring for the whole employee, leadership would be wise to be more attentive to how much women in their team feel supported in their caregiver role. Particularly telling is the data showing that 19% of women in the study strongly agree and another 18% agree with the statement, "I don't talk about my kids/dependents at work because I worry about being seen as unprofessional/unreliable." When men were asked to comment on the same statement, only 12% strongly agreed and another 10% agreed with it. To add even more clarity, only 2% of women strongly disagreed with the statement compared to 16% of men.
The difference in how women and men feel about their role as caregivers is not born out of a weak support system provided by their employer, pointing to the fact that time off or flexible hours or financial support might not be the issue, but rather company culture. Looking at how men and women felt about the statement "My company provides a support system to help with my care duties," the data shows very little difference between the two groups.
During the shelter in place order, some organizations paid particular attention to their employees who have children, causing some friction. Once again, women and men feel differently about the situation, with only 8% of women strongly disagreeing with the statement "There is growing animosity between colleagues with children and those without" compared to 26% of men.
Finally, there is productivity, a topic of strong contention at the beginning of the pandemic. Many organizations wondered whether employees could be as productive working from home as they were from the office. It did not take long to show that across the board, people were much more productive and this was despite working in sub-optimal conditions. This was, of course, no surprise to the many of us who had been working remotely for years. Lack of commute time, business travel, meeting room availability challenges all helped create more focused time. Ironic, I know, when many dealt with kids being out of school and sharing their space and internet connection with spouses or roommates. After an initial over pivot to "everything is a meeting" driven by a mix of need for human interaction and an attempt to establish new routines, most found their groove. So much so that 46% of the Creative Strategies panel expressed a desire to continue to work from home even after the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
While employees might feel comfortable working from home and despite proving their ability to work productively, the data shows a certain level of insecurity is persisting. Only 21% of women working from home say they strongly agree with the statement, "I never feel my productivity is questioned when working from home."
Another 33% agree with the statement. Men are more confident, with 27% saying they strongly agree with the statement and another 32% agree with it. Women might think that with the caregiving role mostly associated with them, there might be an assumption that when at home, it would fall on them to look after the children or cook.
Organizations wanting to support their employees' desire to work from home will have to do more than provide the option. They will have to make sure productivity is not questioned, nor is the value and the status of those employees who are not going to an office every day. It is time we decouple work from office presence. Some work can be done anywhere and going to the office should be a purpose-driven choice that does not translate to better opportunity or a faster career path.
There is plenty of data that points to the self-doubt many women experience at different career stages, from applying for a job to asking for a raise or a promotion. This data on working from home and their roles as caregivers point to just another aspect of such self-doubt. If you conclude, after reading this article, that this is something women have to address within themselves, you have missed the point. We got here because, for so many years, we have been told that once we have a baby, our priorities will change. We have been made feel guilty for leaving the office early to be home in time for dinner, while men are applauded for leaving early to go to the gym. Our role as caregivers might be frowned upon, but then we are asked to be carers at work, whether it's ordering catering for a meeting, organize an office party, buying a present for a celebration, or walking a guest to a meeting room. So, let's eliminate that self-doubt by addressing the issue at its root, which is often a lack of awareness at the management level. As younger generations embrace a life that is much less anchored within the traditional gender roles, the data might look more balanced. Still, it won't necessarily be better unless we increase empathy.
Disclosure: This article was originally published on Forbes.com
The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.