Will working from home increase opportunities for women?

Industries that can adapt and cater to the modified requirements of women in the WFH scenario will stand to gain

By Rhena Bunwaree

Covid-19 has dramatically changed how we view Working from Home (WFH), which is now a much more widely accepted practice in Mauritius. This would seem on the surface to be an equaliser for women, but it may set them back. Rhena Bunwaree, a Media Relations expert investigates the emerging trends on how women are faring with remote work.

Before a tiny virus brought the world to its knees, work-from-home or WFH was a privilege few women could demand. But the most recent lockdown has seen further workplace closures and a move to full-time home working for many. It’s tempting to think the flexible options brought by the ‘Work from Home’ scheme last year is a big equaliser for women. But this is not as simple as it sounds. The ability to work from home runs much deeper than a reduced commute time and increased productivity.

Keeping choices personal

Remote work allows women to work and watch their children grow up without having to hit a pause on their career progression. But when people talk about women in remote work, it’s often a discussion about being a mum in remote work. When thinking about the best parts of women working from home, a lot of what comes to mind is mum stuff. But it’s important not to equate “working women” with “working mums.” And for women who are not mothers, this policy is still attractive. It gives them peace of mind that they do not have to put their career goals on the backburner to enjoy the benefits of remote work. But before we declare victory, we need to consider the high family demand that can be stressful when working from home.

The cultural nuances of working from home

The familial expectations placed on Mauritian women are significant. They bore the brunt of the workload at home even before the Covid-19 pandemic. This virus has only triggered social and emotional fallouts. Juggling domestic responsibilities and always-on-work expectations can be stressful. Besides, most of our homes are not designed for work, noise-free private space for 8-10 hours a day. The house or apartment and dodgy Wi-Fi can make working from home even more stressful. For example, for some women in the middle of the working day, meals need to be planned. This is the case especially with elderly parents with strict meal times.

A solution to gender inequality?

The home is not a neutral space: it is drenched with gendered expectations of obligations that family members have towards each other. Married, heterosexual families remain a major stumbling block to gender equality. The notion of men as breadwinners looms large. Deviations from this have adverse consequences for heterosexual marriages. The male-breadwinner and female-carer norm can be too much for many couples to bear. Without attitudinal and behavioural shifts, gender inequality remains out of reach.

A new form of “presenteeism”

What happens when some team members are in the office or travelling for work while others are WFH? Will we see a gender skew, with men in the office, very visibly contributing to the business, while women are out of sight and mind? Unless companies learn to evaluate output, rewarding people for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on, a world of mostly remote work may increase organisations’ bias for rewarding those who are present, disproportionately harming women. WFH also has implications for those who get pulled into quick or informal decision-making discussions. If going to the office becomes a status symbol, the concern is that more men will have privileged access to it than women.

 Work and family conflict

A wealth of research suggests that flexible working may actually increase family conflict. This is because it can lead to an expansion of work and increase the domestic burden. A recurring finding is that women are more likely to carry out more domestic responsibilities while working flexibly. But men are more likely to prioritise and expand their work spheres. For example, one study found that professional men with and without children, and professional women without children, seem to increase their unpaid overtime hours. This is especially the case when they have more control over their schedules, but professional women with children do not. Working from home is thus a narrow response towards gender equality at home.

What can employers can do to make WFH easier for women?

Will WFH offer women the flexibility they desire? WFH may provide flexibility, but is it enough? We need to change the narrative of women working from home. Modern companies need to embrace remote work as a way to level out the playing field for working women.

A combination of different tactics should be used to tailor interventions to support the female workforce WFH. But for that to happen, the following guidelines can serve as a starting point.

  • Understand that remote working does not occur in a vacuum. Take active steps to challenge any embedded assumptions about the gender-normative roles of mothers and fathers.
  • Avoid the development of two tiers of employees. If most but not all women are WFH, don’t turn the office into the first-class section of a business lounge. Organisations need to re-examine the gender distribution at home and in the less-crowded office. This will ensure an equal amount of flexibility and “hybrid” access for everyone.
  • Upgrade your performance evaluation processes and metrics to focus on outputs. Do not include assessments from periods of lockdown when childcare was unavailable.
  • Increase flexibility: Allow women increased flexibility to work at times that suit them better. For example, some companies found that women prefer working later in the evening when their children were more settled for the day.

It is possible that more flexible working patterns will remain beyond the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it will become the norm. Only time will tell. But industries that can adapt and cater to the modified requirements of women in the WFH scenario will stand to gain.

* Published in print edition on 26 March 2021

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