Working from home post-pandemic could offer mixed results for women, researchers say
Remote work previously stigmatized but could level playing field for all employees
When it was time for Victoria resident Zahida Machan to return to work after her parental leave ended two years ago, she had to make some tough choices.
"As a parent, you're weighing both your desire to succeed in your career and ... being there for your child," she said.
Machan, 40, who had previously worked in managerial-level positions in the international education sector, chose to take a more junior role that would give her the flexibility to work from home so she could spend time with her daughter.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a wave of Canadians shifted to working from home, Machan noticed a change: prospective employers with better jobs said she could work remotely.
"I'm seeing different doors open," she said.
According to Statistics Canada, nearly a third of Canadians worked from home at the beginning of 2021, compared with just four per cent in 1996. An Angus Reid survey conducted in 2020 suggests that two-thirds of Canadians who work from home expect that to continue post-pandemic.
Both surveys suggest most employees would prefer a hybrid model that would allow them to work remotely but occasionally pop into the office.
As the number of daily COVID-19 cases declines across Canada and a return to more normal work life looms, some wonder what impact a hybrid workplace could have on employees — especially for women, who have traditionally sought out more flexible options to help them juggle work with family responsibilities.
As of 2015, women in Canada spent an average of 3.9 hours per day on unpaid work such as chores and child-rearing — 1.5 hours more than men did, according to Statistics Canada.
Researchers who examine gender inequities in the workplace say an increase in remote work could benefit female employees, but many warn that it could also hinder potential job advancements and exacerbate existing gender gaps.
Stigma of remote work
Elizabeth Hirsh, Canada Research Chair in Law and Inequality at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says before the pandemic, remote work was often seen as an accommodation for employees who needed the flexibility.
"It's associated with some stigma, and it's been largely for women with children or with caregiving demands," Hirsh said. "So I think the potential for it to go back to that stigmatized frame is likely."
Many researchers agree that the key to avoiding this stigma is to offer work-from-home opportunities for all employees, not just those who need accommodations.
Surveys such as those from Statistics Canada and Angus Reid suggest that men are just as likely as women to prefer a hybrid work model. Hirsh says framing remote work as a perk for all employees helps to remove its traditional association with gender.
Marina Adshade, author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love and an economics professor at UBC, has similar misgivings about the potential impact of work from home on women.
"I think that it almost certainly will reinforce pre-existing inequities in terms of advancement," Adshade said. "I think there's ways around it for individual companies. But I think as a society, as a culture, that's going to be very, very difficult."
Adshade warns that female employees who work from home could miss out on building relationships with colleagues and supervisors over casual social interactions such as coffee or lunch — relationships that could eventually help them secure better jobs.
She also worries that offering remote work as an accommodation rather than a perk could reinforce caregiving as a woman's responsibility.
"You're not correcting any of these structural problems that we have right now," she said, adding that better access to affordable child care could be more beneficial.
The benefits of remote work
But some researchers say remote work is more likely to benefit female employees.
Soo Min Toh, director of the University of Toronto's Institute for Management and Innovation, says remote work gives more opportunities for women to join the workforce.
"Not being able to work from home or have flex time was the cause for women to only hold part-time jobs," Toh said in an email. "That, on balance, is more disadvantageous for career advancement."
Toh says research on communications technology in organizations shows that it can help balance the playing field between employees because they can more easily access colleagues across the organization.
The beauty of Zoom
Judith Taylor, a sociology professor at U of T, says meetings over platforms such as Zoom are often more professional and focused than going out for beers after work and can lead to better opportunities for advancement.
"There's something kind of beautiful about Zoom and the attention that it provides that makes someone more serious," she said.
Taylor points out that managers may be just as likely as employees to take advantage of remote work, thereby reducing the advantages of showing up at the office.
"I'm just not sure that making it into the office is really that much of a panacea," she said.