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With headlines proclaiming the successes of women in leadership positions over the past year, the initial impression of workplace gender discrimination might be one of optimism. But, remote work may be a different story.
But the truth of the matter is that progress on the gender equality front has been modest at best since 2015, and new challenges have emerged in the wake of the global pandemic.
In fact, some say that COVID-19 has had a regressive impact on workplace gender equality. Indeed, the pandemic has a disproportionate effect on women. Though women represent 39% of the global workforce, they accounted for 54% of job losses as of May 2020.
And in 2020, there were 21,398 complaints of gender discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), the U.S. federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws.
Clearly, more action is needed to achieve results that will have long-lasting societal and business benefits. A survey by Catalyst found that employees want their company to take steps to improve gender equity post-pandemic. However, only 34% believed their company would take the necessary measures.
Part of adapting to the post-COVID landscape means taking into account changes in terms of where people work. There’s no denying that the remote work model is here to stay, and as such, businesses need to be mindful of the unique ways remote work can impact gender equality. Because gender discrimination is still alive and well in the workplace, whether in an office or virtual setting.
Here is a look at five things to know about gender discrimination in the remote workplace.
1) The Problem of “Presenteeism” in the Remote Work “Office”
To respond to the new work landscape, companies have introduced various working arrangements, like hybrid and remote work options. But there’s concern that men and women may make different decisions about where they work, leading to an imbalance in physical workspaces. And those differing decisions could have long-term consequences for gender equality and advancement in the workplace.
In a recent survey by FlexJobs, 68% of women said they would prefer to work remotely-only post-pandemic versus 57% of male respondents. The findings are similar in a UK-based poll that found 69% of women with children want to work from home at least one day a week in the post-COVID environment, compared to 56% of men with children.
A scenario where more women choose to work from home and more men return to the office could lead to greater gender inequality in the workplace and reinforcement of stereotypical domestic roles. That, in turn, could stall career potential for women – both in terms of earnings and advancement.
A Harvard Business Review article explained that a disproportionate number of men in the office versus women working at home could lead to a new form of “presenteeism,” which may increase a company’s bias for rewarding those present in the office. Despite the increasing popularity of remote work, many companies still hang on to the in-person culture and believe that seeing people in the office equates to productivity. The unfortunate consequence of a hybrid working arrangement is that individuals – women and men alike – who work from home end up being out of sight and out of mind.
To combat presenteeism, the article noted the importance for companies to “learn to evaluate output, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on.”
2) The Broken Rung Obstacle Is Holding Women Back
While the “glass ceiling” concept is often referenced as the main barrier for women’s advancement in the workplace, the problem actually lies with an obstacle called the “broken rung” of the corporate ladder. And it doesn’t appear that remote work will remedy the situation, particularly if the “presenteeism” problem discussed above comes to light.
Research shows that men are more likely than women to get promoted from an entry-level position to a management role. This imbalance early on in a budding career is part of the reason why there are fewer women at every progressive step on the corporate ladder. Because they are at a disadvantage from the first step, women can’t climb fast enough to catch up with men in senior positions.
In a Wall Street Journal article, Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas of LeanIn.Org stated:
“There is no good reason why so many more men than women are being tapped for promotions, only a bad one – bias.”
The Women in the Workplace 2021 study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org found that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted.
The study also revealed that in Corporate America, men are promoted at 30% higher rates than women during the early stages of their careers, and women in entry-level positions are significantly more likely to spend five years or longer in the same role. So it’s no surprise that women are nearly three times more likely than men to think their gender will make it harder for them to get a raise, promotion, or other opportunities to excel.
Consider that the labor force participation rate for women in the U.S. is around 56% but only 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women.
Until women advance to management positions at the same rate as men, representation at the top of the corporate ladder will remain uneven.
3) Microaggressions Are a Remote Workplace Reality for Women
Whether subtle or explicit, intentional or not, microaggressions signal disrespect and reflect inequality. And for 64% of women, this form of discrimination is a workplace reality.
Microaggressions can take various forms, such as constant interruptions, questioning judgment in one’s area of expertise, having contributions ignored, comments on one’s emotional state, or being addressed in an unprofessional manner. But all types of microaggressions have the same effect of undermining an individual’s professional status and credibility.
According to the Pew Research Center, among women who work with mostly male colleagues, 37% report being treated as if they were not competent because of their gender.
Unfortunately, remote work arrangements aren’t an immediate solution to gender-based microaggressions. And in some instances, it may even exacerbate the problem.
In the survey by Catalyst, 45% of women business leaders said it’s difficult for women to speak up during virtual meetings, and 42% of male business leaders agreed with that observation.
The survey also found that one in five women has felt ignored and overlooked by coworkers during video meetings, while one in five respondents said they had witnessed more discrimination at work since the start of COVID-19.
Similarly, in a survey by the Society of Women Engineers, 31% of respondents said they are “getting talked over, interrupted, or ignored more frequently during virtual meetings than those held in person.”
4) Women Face Hurdles with Remote Networking
Chats with a coworker or supervisor at the water cooler may seem insignificant, but informal networking is a vital element of career advancement.
Even before remote work was a hot topic, research showed that women have more difficulty finding opportunities to interact with senior leaders.
And while that may not sound like a noteworthy disparity at first, it actually has significant implications in terms of who stays at a company, who receives promotions, and who sets their sights on leadership. In fact, hurdles with networking have been cited as one of the primary causes of workplace gender gaps.
In the 2018 Women in the Workplace report, women were more likely to report they “never have substantive interactions with senior leaders about their work” compared to men. Women are also more likely than men to report never having informal interactions with senior leaders. “Because senior leaders are often the ones to create opportunities and open doors, this lack of access puts women at a disadvantage,” reads the study.
What’s more, while 67% of women consider mentorship an essential factor for career advancement, only 10% of working women have a mentor. The main reason? Male supervisors/managers say they aren’t comfortable mentoring female coworkers.
Hybrid and remote work arrangements, particularly in a setting where more men return to the office than women, raise the question of whether the existing imbalance will widen by further diminishing opportunities for in-person networking. And that could mean significant repercussions for women’s career paths if the gender-based inequality of informal networks is accelerated.
According to an article in Fast Company, “the official virtual meeting represents only a fraction of interactions, and real power dynamics will move backstage, excluding women as needed.”
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5) Companies Need to Keep Up with Cultural, Demographic Shifts About Gender
It’s important to point out that even when workplaces make efforts for gender equality, they often neglect the discrimination experienced by people who are transgender (an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth) and non-binary (individuals who do not identify exclusively as either a man or woman).
Many remote workplaces are failing to keep up with demographic and cultural shifts in how society thinks about gender. As noted in a 2021 McKinsey & Company report, while Corporate America has “stepped up its public support of LGBTQ+ rights, it still has a long road ahead to foster a truly inclusive environment.” And that’s something that workplaces need to prioritize, considering that an estimated 12% of millennials, who compromise more than 35% of the U.S. workforce, identify as trans or non-binary.
Because research shows that transgender and non-binary individuals are more likely to be discriminated against in the workplace, many will hide their gender identity to avoid mistreatment.
According to McKinsey, transgender employees feel far less supported in the workplace than their cisgender (individuals who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth) colleagues do. They find it more difficult to understand remote workplace culture and benefits, harder to receive promotions, and feel less supported by their supervisors.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey – the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the U.S. with more than 27,000 respondents – found that 30% of respondents who had a job in the year before the survey reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experienced some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression.
“It’s clear that it’s not sufficient for companies to be well intentioned when it comes to creating and enforcing inclusive policies,” wrote Lily Zheng in a Harvard Business Review article. “In order to actually support employees of all gender identities and expressions, company leaders will have to take a different approach that balances flexibility, privacy, and access.”
Equality Benefits Everyone
There is a risk that gender equality could recede as a strategic priority as companies focus on post-pandemic recovery efforts. Of course, other priorities will always come up, but eliminating discrimination should never become a backburner issue. After all, let’s not forget that gender equality initiatives could spur business recovery efforts, since companies that are gender diverse outperform their competitors by as much as 25%.
Courtney Geduldig of S&P Global summed it up best when she explained that “one of the biggest misconceptions about gender equality is that it only benefits women, but the data shows that this is not true.”
There is no quick fix to systemic gender inequalities. But by being proactive and aware of imbalances, businesses can become leaders against gender discrimination in all workplace settings.
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