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For women in the workplace, does remote work already need remodeling?

At a Web Summit fireside chat on remote work, Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson notes that office-first cultures are going to find it increasingly difficult to compete with remote-first cultures, and it’s more important than ever to get remote right. Remote work opens up possibilities for wider talent networks and more competitive teams, but it also needs to evolve in order to support workers, especially women.

report from McKinsey & Company found that 79% of men reported a positive experience working from home during the pandemic, compared to just 37% of women. So what is going wrong?

Kristin Luck, who joined Jeremy and is the CEO of ESOMAR, a global association for data insights professionals, and the founder of Women in Research, points out that many factors impact women’s experiences. 

COVID-19 widened the gender gap in employment, possibly impacting global GDP by 2030. 

“In the first year of the pandemic, 54 million women around the world left the workforce. This has widened the gender gap in employment significantly,” Kristin tells us. “Of the women who lost jobs in 2020, 90% left the workforce entirely compared to around 70% of men.” The effects of this are huge. If nothing is done to address the current unemployment gender parity, McKinsey research estimates that the global GDP could be $1 trillion lower by 2030. 

“It’s no wonder women have chosen to exit at certain times,” says Kristin. “but I think that there are a lot of things that employers can do to improve these situations.” Some of these include “employer flexibility, better parental leave policies (particularly in the US ), [and] more flexible work-from-home environments.” These are all things said to benefit women, but Kristin notes that they also benefit men. “They allow men to be equal partners in the family experience.”

Looking after children and domestic life is a substantial part-time job that disproportionately falls to women.

“Women, on average, do about 75% of the world’s unpaid care work. The demands of this have obviously grown substantially during the pandemic,” says Kristin. “40% of mothers compared to 27% of fathers are the ones responsible for homeschooling and the care of children.”

Another aspect is the pressure to put on a professional appearance at all times. This can be incredibly challenging when women have to simultaneously manage homeschooling and other household tasks. Kristin cites a Harvard Business Review study on “Zoom fatigue” that found that the effects of being on camera non-stop have accelerated depression and anxiety. “The statistics were significantly larger for women” as a result of the so-called grooming gap projecting unfair beauty expectations upon women in the workplace.

Overcoming the grooming gap and other challenges of remote work will require organizations to adopt different approaches. 

Kristin encourages women to manage expectations around video to combat the grooming gap: “I think more women have to [put limitations] around the number of video meetings they’re going to do per week. I have certain days of the week that I say I’m not going to do video calls. The other thing that I’ve done is stop having Zoom or Microsoft Teams automatically turn on my video when I join a meeting. That way, I can assess if other people are on video.” Jeremy agrees that improving conditions starts with not requiring everyone to always be on camera.

Another component is creating more equitable conditions in hybrid environments. Kristin explains, “When we talk about remote work now, we’re talking about really using technology and systems to connect people in more meaningful ways. […] I was talking to a woman who told me that even though part of her staff is in the office and part are remote, if she schedules a team meeting, she won’t do anything in person; everyone has to be online because it levels the playing field.”

What else needs to change? Kristin says that organizations “really need to think about staff and the different needs of introverts versus extroverts. Providing opportunities for people to opt-out of team-building activities is healthy. Second, make sure you’re looking at your workplace policies and that they’re gender-equal. It’s critical to really consider the extra workload women are carrying at this point and acknowledge that. Lastly, really look at your global hiring practices: What can you do to hire a more global and more representative workforce? When you do that, you get a better, more diverse talent pool that drives innovation and new product development, which creates a more competitive environment for your company.”

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