Mainstreaming Teleworking and Gender Equality: A Double-Edged Sword?

While teleworking has grown, there is evidence of the pandemic’s profound negative impact on women’s employment, setting back women’s career equality a generation. Banner image: Shutterstock/UvGroup
Mainstreaming Teleworking and Gender Equality: A Double-Edged Sword?

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Teleworking is not new, but due to the restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become more widespread around the globe. Covid-19 shifted societal narratives regarding flexible working from being a gendered, work-life accommodation resisted by employers, to a vital tool keeping economies afloat. Once limited to professional knowledge workers, teleworking has become increasingly available in the post-pandemic world to workers across many occupations. And teleworking is popular - reports indicate that 87% of workers with telework options would like to keep them.

Yet while teleworking has grown, there is evidence of the pandemic’s profound negative impact on women’s employment, setting back women’s career equality a generation. Compared to 2020, by the end of 2021, women remained 1.7 times more likely to be out of work than men; evidence of striking gendered labor market participation disparities. We argue in this essay, that the rise of teleworking is a double-edged sword with mixed consequences for women’s careers that need to be carefully managed.

While media attention focused on women leaving the workforce during COVID-19, there has been far less attention on those who remained working, many remotely. As nations expand interest in promoting greater teleworking, understanding the experiences of women who work remotely is crucial.

Though occupational access varies, there are potentially manifold benefits of teleworking for women. It can enhance work-life balance by reducing commute time, facilitate childcare and eldercare, and assist mental health by reducing depressive symptoms. Remote working can advance women’s career opportunities by making more jobs available globally. It can benefit dual career households, by enabling women to remain employed while accommodating their spouse’s job location.

Yet a recent report commissioned for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Covid-19’s effects on women scientists working in STEM- a critical workforce-found that even among highly educated, professional women, the gendered division of labor remained. These women bore the brunt of the increased domestic demands (performing 90% of household tasks) as they teleworked. Their work-life boundaries were dramatically disrupted as child care centers and schools closed. The increased intensity of work and domestic demands together with transitioning to homeworking led to many personal and professional sacrifices with some women contemplating role exiting from professional or even family roles.

More on the Forum Network: Policies to Support Women through the Crisis
and Ensure an Inclusive Recovery"
by Monika Queisser, Head, Social Policy Division, OECD

Moreover, since employers possess greater economic power than individuals, they regulate how teleworking is implemented risking a situation of “inflexible flexibility.” Women may face loss of schedule and boundary control impeding their ability over how to carry their job and  domestic responsibilities. Women who work from home are more likely to have blurred work-life boundaries, creating work-nonwork conflicts as many combine paid work with caregiving. Increased participation in remote work can result in women managing two jobs- paid and domestic labor simultaneously; leading to overwork and burnout.

Beside health impacts, teleworking may be implemented unevenly within and across occupations in ways that may harm women economically. For example, if teleworking is systematically linked to less secure, lower skilled, paid positions, this may further contribute to the growing global pay gap. Given women are often left out of key leadership networks and often have less access to mentors than equivalent men, increased remote working could also contribute to greater career isolation and less opportunities for professional development. Women may be stigmatized for having less face time in the office and consequently be overlooked for promotion to senior jobs if they opt for more teleworking than men. Further, not everyone’s home is conducive to homeworking, lacking space, and a suitable environment free from distractions, which might harm women’s performance.

In conclusion, although more widespread access to teleworking has been touted as a panacea for increasing career equality with potential benefits for women, policy makers need to ensure that it does not create adverse impacts (e.g., lower pay, heightened work-life stress) on women’s lives. We argue that the way teleworking is implemented is key. Researcher and employer partnerships are needed in order to better understand how to implement teleworking to maximize benefits, while mitigating constraints. Telework has great promise to foster women’s equality in the post-pandemic world. However, employers must first learn about how to support “good teleworking” that fosters economic and health well-being for women and workers, more generally.

The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Find out more!

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