Remote working can damage women’s career prospects – but it shouldn’t

The shift to remote working has granted millions of us a better work/life balance, yet proximity bias is blocking the advancement of highly talented people, affecting female workers disproportionately

“What worries me is a world where women become less visible.” 

So said entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow at the inaugural Women in Work Summit in London this week.

She was talking in a session questioning whether the post-pandemic shift towards remote working in the UK has been good for women. I’d assumed beforehand that the consensus would be yes, but Wosskow offered a strong argument to the contrary. 

Her reasoning was as follows: there are more men in the workforce than women, who are more likely to be working remotely. And studies show that people who visit the office less often than their managers are less likely to secure a promotion than colleagues who attend HQ frequently.

Wosskow urged the audience to “be very careful about where the consequences of the pandemic and the desire for flexibility can take us”.

The reality of who works from home

Her arguments are supported by government research. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 79.4% of men aged 16 to 64 are employed in the UK as of Q2 2023, compared with 72.1% of women.

Women are also slightly more likely than men to be working remotely. The ONS surveys the population regularly on where and how they work. Its most recent findings indicate that 17% of women work purely from home, compared with 16% of men, while 29% of women are hybrid workers, compared with 27% of men. Nearly half of working men (48%) cannot do so from home, compared with 44% of working women. 

There is plenty of research evidence indicating that proximity bias exists in many workplaces. For instance, a survey of C-suite executives in the US last year found that 41% believed that remote workers were less likely to be considered for promotion in their firms. This phenomenon predates the pandemic: a study conducted in China in 2015 found that remote workers were half as likely as their office-attending colleagues to be promoted, even though they were more productive. 

So, as Wosskow highlighted, there could be an issue to address here. Yet it doesn’t mean that the uptake of remote working, especially by women, is intrinsically a mistake.

How to prevent WFH from becoming another equality issue

Nonetheless, employers should be aware of the potential challenges this trend presents. When designed well and applied effectively, flexible working policies can give employees agency, reduce their stress and improve their productivity. But if this harms people’s promotion prospects and earning power – particularly those in groups who are already disadvantaged in this respect – it will simply reinforce the status quo.

The solution, then, is to be mindful of how flexible working policies operate in reality and to mitigate any impact this could have on remote workers’ careers. 

Women remain overwhelmingly responsible for childcare and household chores, which may be part of the reason why they‘re more likely to take up flexible working where it’s offered. New data from the National Centre for Social Research shows that, while attitudes to women’s participation in work have shifted hugely over the past 40 years, behaviour has yet to catch up. For instance, 65% of the British public say that washing and ironing is done mainly by the women in their households, versus 27% who say it is shared and 7% who say it is done mainly by the men.

Be very careful about where the consequences of the pandemic and the desire for flexibility can take us

To build fairness into the system, an employer must track who is making use of flexible working policies and why, and then ensure that everyone feels equally able to access them. If women are using them more than men, it needs to consider why that’s the case. 

Elliott Rae, who founded MusicFootballFatherhood, a parenting platform for men, highlighted this issue at the summit from an alternative viewpoint. He spoke of a male friend who’d been offered four weeks of paternity leave by his employer but had taken only one because he knew that the other men in the firm who’d secured promotions after becoming fathers had taken only a week off. 

Rae asked delegates: “What are you doing in your organisations to encourage and support dads to take up flexible work policies?”

Managers also need to be trained in how to counter proximity bias and be mindful of treating everyone equally, no matter where they work. Likewise, they need fairer systems of gauging someone’s productivity and value to the business if they can’t see that person working next to them in the office.

Ultimately, as writer and futurist Christine Armstrong noted at the summit, the pandemic gave us “the most incredible opportunity to reset work”. But that reset needs to benefit everyone. It’s up to business leaders to ensure that it does.