How WFH can hurt women’s careers

July 17, 2020, 12:47 PM UTC

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Greta Thunberg demands more action on climate, Michelle Obama launches a podcast, and WFH could be hazardous to women’s careers. Have a wonderful weekend.

– WFH WTF. With many of us now months into this global work from home experiment, I’m betting you may not even have to click through to this new Harvard Business Review story to answer the question implied in its headline: “Why WFH isn’t necessarily great for women.”

The authors, who include former Australian PM Julia Gillard and London Business School prof Herminia Ibarra, list a slew of reasons our current home office set-up may be disproportionately dinging women’s careers: Working from home can cause an increase in family conflict, a lack of access to informal networks, and a diminished likelihood of being tapped for key assignments, among other hazards. But what jumped out at me is a more forward-looking concept, which the authors dub “a new form of presenteeism.”

The collective wisdom among future-of-work types right now is that many companies will ultimately shift to a hybrid model, where not every employee comes into the office every day. So, some people will go “back to normal”—spending many of their days in the office or traveling for work— while others will just come in for some face time occasionally, or not at all. And given what we know about the uncertainty of schools and childcare this fall (yes, that again!), it seems likely that most working parents, and particularly working moms, will end up in the latter camp.

The HBS authors wonder whether this new hybrid workplace will leave women “out of sight and mind,” and exclude them from those unplanned, informal meetings that we all know are critical to the office hierarchy. They ask: “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?” 

In many offices (including Fortune’s own!), this shift from remote to in-person is already underway. At the moment, those venturing into the office remain in the minority at many companies—but what will happen when that dynamic changes? The HBS story notes that companies must be wary of creating “two tiers of employees”—with the higher status and the perks going to those with the ability to be physically present.

How to avoid that dangerous pitfall? The authors stress the importance of using data (rather than assumptions) to assess the situation, calling on employers to “examine the gender distribution at home and in the less-crowded office, ensuring an equal amount of flexibility and ‘hybrid’ access for everyone.”

Sure, that’s a start. But it’s also up to all of us to remember the downsides of our current WFH situation—the isolation, the difficulty of being left out of essential conversations, the way work so easily bleeds into the rest of our lives… When (and if!) we all make it back to the office, it’s on us to do our part to make sure our remote colleagues aren’t left behind.

Kristen Bellstrom

Today’s Broadsheet was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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