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Is workplace flexibility a trap?

November 17, 2021, 5:43 PM UTC

Companies have a long tradition of offering women workplace flexibility, only to then punish them—with fewer promotions or pay raises—for taking advantage of those benefits. Has the pandemic really changed that?

I wrote about this in a piece for Politico magazine this week, and it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. Because as the anecdotes about burn out pile-up and the data about women quitting their jobs roll in, what seemed like a blessing—the ability to work remotely—increasingly feels like a curse.

As I mention in the piece, the “hybrid” model, where employees can work both remotely and in-office, is increasingly hailed as the future of white-collar workplace. Theoretically, that should be good for women. Many of us are caregivers of children or elderly parents or both! So it’s a lifesaver to be able to work from home and have the ability to pick the kids up from school or take someone to the doctor or even run a load of laundry, right?

Surveys show more women than men want to work this way.

But there are reasons to worry. Actually, a lot of reasons. First, is the child-care thing: there’s new research published by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve showing that mothers who had the ability to work remotely during the pandemic were more likely than fathers to quit their jobs.

Essentially, women were forced to work double-duty at home while children were in remote school or with childcare in short supply, and that just wasn’t sustainable. “[T]he multi-tasking was way too intense,” one of the researchers tells Chabeli Carrazana who wrote about it for The 19th.

Second, and maybe even more insidious, is the mommy track thing. It’s what I focus on in my article. The term emerged in the world of Big Law in the 1980s when women were finally breaking into that cutthroat world and firms were (sort of) trying to attract them. The moves firms made to lure women were used against them.

From a 1988 New York Times article:

“Although a growing number of prestigious firms offer flexible working hours, child care and lenient maternity leave, women who take advantage of them often find themselves left behind when it comes to partnerships, choice assignments and stature.”

A truly wild paragraph, particularly this notion of “lenient maternity leave”! What on earth could that mean? (This weekend, the comedy writer Bess Kalb wrote about how maternity leave likely saved her life).

One hopes that things have changed in the ensuing decades, but I’m not sure.

For the piece, I spoke to a marketing executive who negotiated a flexible schedule before the pandemic and then was ostracized from her peers. Several other women shared anecdotes with me, one was passed over for a promotion because she wasn’t in the office.

Also, just personally, I’ve spent the past few decades working with a lot of very capable women, and the ones with the flexible schedules didn’t ever seem to move up.

Many experts are fretting that we won’t realize this tracking is happening until it’s too late.

“It can be hard to tell if you are being treated differently than others, and maybe even harder when everyone is remote,” Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and leading scholar on women and leadership, told me. “It may be that a woman would need to try several times to be promoted and not get promoted before it begins to ‘feel’ like she’s struggling and perhaps there just hasn’t been enough time yet for that to happen to people.”

There’s also this very disturbing survey of C-suite professionals from EgonZehnder; 97 percent agreed that working from home benefited women. And at the same time, 70% said remote and hybrid employees might be at risk of getting passed over for a promotion because of decreased visibility at work.

Talk about a double-bind.

You can read the whole piece over at Politico. But I’m also curious to get your thoughts, readers. Do you think our hybrid future will work out for women? Find me on Twitter or drop me a line:

emily.peck@consultant.fortune.com

Emily Peck

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub. And read more here:

1 quote, 1 story, 1 number

  • “We enjoy talking about ourselves, but we underestimate the benefits of letting others do the same–to the detriment of our relationships.” — David Robson, in a piece for the BBC on how to build better conversational habits.
  • “Wall Street Is Offering 8-Figure Pay Packages to Woo Top Talent” — Great piece from Bloomberg, which reports bankers are seeing massive pay increases and are increasingly fed up with their lack of work-life balance. I guess earning millions makes up for the sacrifice.
  • 21.5 hours a week—That’s the amount of time the average professional spends in meetings during the week (half the week!), up from 14.2 hours pre-pandemic, according to data cited in Protocol.

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