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Remote work may level the playing field and ensure women aren’t forced to “walk on eggshells”

November 3, 2022, 12:01 PM UTC
Remote work could help level the playing field for women seeking career advancement.
Beau Lark/Getty Images

Despite months of return-to-office announcements and deliberations, remote work has had surprising staying power. Most office workers are still working remotely at least a day or two each week. 

As the dust settles, it appears there’s a silver lining for women: Remote work may actually help close workplace gaps in promotions and career trajectories. Nearly eight in 10 men and women equally (77%) believe the widespread adoption of remote work has created more opportunities for career advancement across gender lines, according to the 2022 Modern Workplace Report, a research study released Thursday by Care.com and Mother Honestly. 

The report is based on a survey of 1,000 employees who act as caregivers and 500 C-suite executives and human resource decision-makers. About 66% of the workers surveyed reported being able to work from home more now than pre-pandemic. Only about 32% of managers and 25% of employees say their companies require personnel in the office full-time. 

More than three-quarters of employees reported their quality of life improved under hybrid and remote work schedules—while 58% of managers (and 55% of workers) say productivity is up. Not only is remote work proving to be sustainable and successful in many organizations, but many respondents reported the new workplace norms are having a positive impact on women. Flexible work has also led to more gender balance in household responsibilities, the report finds.

Remote work is a “paradigm that’s working for everyone, tackling the usual challenges of productivity and quality of life, and, quite surprisingly, gender equity as well,” Natalie Mayslich, president of the consumer side of Care.com, said in a statement. “While there’s still more work to do, this research indicates we’ve taken a quantum leap forward.” 

Remote workers still worry about long-term career risks

While remote work offers employees much-needed flexibility and the potential to level the playing field, both workers and managers are aware that success depends on internal corporate policies and workplace culture. 

Over half (58%) of women are concerned that remote work could limit their overall career advancement—and even more men (64%) are worried. There’s still a pervading belief that in-office work is better for those looking to get ahead, while about six in 10 managers say being in-person is better at building team  camaraderie, efficiency, mentorship and even helping to understand office politics.

“Proximity bias is real,” says Katherine Goldstein, host of the Double Shift podcast and newsletter. But it’s not the only hurdle women have to contend with—the motherhood bias is also a factor. “People already judge mothers as being less committed to their work, so there is a sense that hybrid or remote work could really create an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality in terms of both promotions and also in terms of layoffs.”

If a manager or supervisor doesn’t have a personal connection with a segment of the workforce, then it’s naturally going to be emotionally easier to lay those people off, Goldstein tells Fortune. This is a potential trend everyone needs to be paying attention to, she adds.

Yet while the career risks are real, employers shouldn’t just abandon remote work—particularly since there are clear benefits when it’s done right. Instead, organizations should take steps to ensure their work model and policies don’t favor in-person workers more than remote or hybrid employees. 

“Culture starts at the top, and I think if companies are interested in supporting caregivers, the very first step they can take is to be transparent about their own caregiving responsibilities,” Goldstein says, adding that when company leaders share their own childcare struggles or can empathize about the experiences of working parents, it can make a big difference. 

“That is the easiest thing leaders can do to support caregivers that costs no money and can have a great impact on culture,” Goldstein says. “People with less seniority and power in the workplace may often feel like they have to walk on eggshells.”

Organizations that do have hybrid and fully remote workers also need to make an effort to be transparent and standardized about their promotion criteria. Getting ahead at work shouldn’t depend on how much your boss likes you or the latest conversation you had about your favorite sports team. 

The onus also falls on workers to advocate for themselves, especially if they’re working remotely part- or full-time. That may mean scheduling more one-on-one time with a manager to outline what tasks you’re working on and highlight recent accomplishments. You want to ensure that you’re more than just a “Slack icon” to your coworkers and manager, Goldstein says. 

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