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How the Workplace of the Future Could Leave Women Behind

When F, a 37-year-old media strategist, started working at a tech company based in Austin in June 2019, she negotiated a flexible schedule. She would work from home Tuesdays and Thursdays so that she could spend more time throughout the day with her 15-month-old son.

This was pre-Covid 19, and F was the only person on the marketing team at her 30-person company who chose to work from home a few days a week. With a child that young, her priorities were different than those of many of her colleagues, who preferred not just to work together all day but also to socialize together afterwards. “I’m not going to be in an office from 8:30 to 5, and then [go to] happy hours and drinking party boats,” said F, who asked for anonymity to speak openly about her former employer.

In hindsight there were red flags. Her colleagues told her they thought it was “fascinating” she had children, she recalled. “The thing haunting [me] was, they kept saying, ‘We really want an adult in the room,’” she said. That “adult” was supposed to be her.

After a few months, it was clear something was off. She’d come into the office on a Friday and find out about a new direction for the business that everyone else already knew about. When she asked why she hadn’t been told, they’d say, “‘If you were here, you would know,’” F said.

When everyone started working from home during the pandemic, she was relieved. If the whole company was remote, then she’d finally be on equal footing. But things somehow got worse. She was left off team emails or excluded from Slack messages. It felt like gaslighting, she said; there was a lot of “I could’ve sworn I sent that to you.” Then deadlines became unmanageable, she said, with requests for work to be completed by the next day coming in at around 4:00 p.m.

F says she thinks that she never shook the remote work penalty — the sense from her coworkers that she wasn’t a “real” member of the team because she was less physically present; and possibly because her status as a mother also set her apart culturally. This fall, F left the company and is now doing consulting work.

F’s experience began before the pandemic, but almost two years later, the problems she encountered are urgent as employers consider their post-Covid workplaces. F’s schedule, with some remote days and some in-office days, has become known as the “hybrid” model, and it is being hailed by business publications and consultants as the future of white-collar work.

But what happened to F suggests the hybrid workplace of the future is full of potential problems. And these downsides could very likely hit women hardest.

Take a spin through “future of work” articles on the Internet, and you’ll find many calling the shift to hybrid work a positive gamechanger for women in particular. Women, after all, are more interested than men in working remotely at least part of the time. One survey, from LinkedIn, found women were 26 percent more likely than men to apply to remote jobs. And it’s easy to see why: Women are disproportionately burdened with caregiving responsibilities, either for children or elderly relatives. Since the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered schools and other childcare facilities, women have found it increasingly difficult to juggle those responsibilities with work, which — along with punishing job losses in sectors where women make up the majority of workers — has caused an exodus of women from the workforce. Women have lost 2.4 million jobs since February 2020, according to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center. And female participation in the workforce is hovering at a level last seen in the 1980s.

If more companies let women work from home several days a week, helping them better juggle work and family, isn’t that a good thing?

Maybe not. As this long-term hybrid future comes into view, a group of academics, executives, gender-equality advocates and women themselves are increasingly worried that it might start to harden around new norms that hurt women rather than help them. Their fear is that women will take advantage of the hybrid benefit more than men, choosing to work more days at home, while companies subtly — or not so subtly — continue to favor employees who come into the office more often. Even if they say they won’t, employers will use frequent time with bosses and long hours in-person as the basis for advancing. Less formally, workers not in the office might miss impromptu conversations that lead to new opportunities. Over time, so-called hybrid friendly companies will develop two-tier workplaces — with the lowest tier populated mostly by women.

If hybrid work becomes both widespread and mostly an accommodation for women, “You entrench a women’s work ghetto,” said Brigid Schulte, director of New America’s Better Life Lab. “You are mommy tracked to the billionth degree.”

This new kind of class ceiling would come at a particularly precarious moment, when the mass exodus of women out of the labor market could lead to a slowdown in growth for the entire economy, to the tune of billions of dollars, according to one estimate.

If companies don’t move intentionally to head off the problems posed by the hybrid workplace, decades of progress toward equality could be set back. “Unless you are very intentional and careful about how you come back and who comes back and you’re open about culture,” said Schulte. “I feel this could be worse for women.”

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