Return to Work Is Happening in Hybrid Form—But Is Hybrid Working for Women?

While the ability to earn from anywhere is welcome, it’s clear being “at home” is often interpreted as “in the domain of women.” What’s less clear is if companies will use this as a chance to undertake real change. 

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The structure of employment in the U.S. has long been untenable for anyone who has caregiving duties. (CIPHR Connect / Wikimedia Commons)

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced how work-from-home can be just as effective—and in fact, perhaps more effective—as in-person work, for white-collar workers, the return to offices is starting to happen. In this model, many companies are employing a hybrid work model, where instead of the usual 8 to 5, personnel chose a few days a week to be at their desks.

This is the worst of both worlds in some respects, Emma Goldberg argued in the New York Times. Zooming from the conference room, mask on, is not necessarily an improvement over working from the kitchen table. Paired with the record number of women who dropped out of labor force participation during the pandemic, the rickety scaffolding that was bridging work and family life has been exposed.

The structure of employment in the U.S. has long been untenable for anyone who has caregiving duties, but now that hybrid work is here—the flexibility of which women have been advocating for basically forever—is it enough?

Tara Milburn is the founder of Ethical Swag, an organization who has always had a fully remote work model. “We have to ask questions like: Do women get to voice and advocate for their needs, whether they’re the same or unique to their male co-workers?” Milburn said.

The breakdown of the barrier between wage-work spaces and domestic work spaces has had disastrous consequences for many women, who, during lockdown, found themselves stranded without childcare and responsible for monitoring school, often with little to no help. Helen Lewis writing for The Atlantic called women’s independence a silent victim of the pandemic. 

Employers feel that allowing a flexible work schedule is more than enough for women. Being asked to contribute to childcare is stretching their dollar more than they want.

Debbie Winkelbauer, executive recruiter at Surf Search

Milburn further asks, when it comes to hybrid schedules, if employers are building in strong boundaries between work and family time, and if female professionals are afforded what she calls “grace and space” to feel like they are key contributors in both their personal and professional lives.

“In light of the Great Resignation, it seems like management across some industries might not have completely opened the doors for a fruitful two-way conversation,” she said.

To that point, Debbie Winkelbauer, an executive recruiter at Surf Search, noted that while certain employers are using hybrid schedules to entice female candidates, there is still deep resistance toward the idea of subsidizing childcare.

“Employers feel that allowing a flexible work schedule is more than enough for women. Being asked to contribute to childcare is stretching their dollar more than they want,” she said.

It’s not news to anyone that women take on more than our fair share of caretaking: Data from U.N. Women suggests it’s 16 billion hours of unpaid work worldwide. Every. Single. Day. Gen Z and even early millennial women are particularly feeling the squeeze in the sandwich generation, caring for both children and aging parents. 

Heather Odendaal, CEO and co-founder of WNORTH, an organization that focuses on elevating more women into executive roles, reframes the idea of women being forced out of the workplace in historic numbers. While she doesn’t downplay the reality of the pressures at home, she also does not believe that’s always the primary driver.

“It’s telling that many women who ultimately downshifted their careers or quit altogether did so largely because their power at work was being stripped away,” she said. 

Citing a March 2021 survey by Indeed, Odendaal points out that even while accommodations have seemingly been in effect for people with caregiving responsibilities, 65 percent of women say these accommodations were not honored. For example, their teams scheduled decision-making meetings when they were not able to attend. Forty percent of women said hiring decisions were made without them, and 33 percent reported that strategic decisions impacting their own roles were decided without their input. A whopping 70 percent of women who chose to do less synchronous work indicated a lack of support from their manager. Women of color were more than 50 percent more likely to report an unsympathetic supervisor. 

“Many of these women were senior managers and directors who had the potential for higher-level leadership positions,” Odendaal said. “It broke the pipeline that we’ve been building for the last two decades.”

The BBC backs this idea up, reporting that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of what had been increasing gender equality gains.

While Odendaal still believes that hybrid work is an important factor that helps level the playing field for working parents, without true cultural shifts, it creates new barriers for women and people of color. “Even in hybrid environments, proximity bias comes into play. There is still the perception that workers who are in the office are doing more than their remote counterparts,” she said. 

A stark contrast to the benefits of hybrid work arises: It is precisely the people who need hybrid schedules the most who will end up paying the highest price. 

Desiree S. Coleman, a diversity, equity and inclusion executive in the financial services industry, also has concerns about how hybrid work is playing out.

“Hybrid schedules create spatial differences that challenge relationship-building,” she said. “For women and people of color, who are already less represented in leadership roles, hybrid schedules and remote work can diminish access to the workplace networking that facilitates career advancement.” 

Even in hybrid environments, proximity bias comes into play. There is still the perception that workers who are in the office are doing more than their remote counterparts.

Heather Odendaal, CEO and co-founder of WNORTH

To combat the challenges of hybrid workspaces, Coleman says companies must address systemic barriers to success. For example, organizations could ensure that review processes are inclusive and proportionally identify high-performing leaders from underrepresented groups.

This might require taking additional steps to ensure that talented individuals who may be deep into the organization are not overlooked. “Additionally, when companies identify women and people of color as high-potential leaders, formalized sponsorship efforts, stretch opportunities, and visibility can accelerate their career growth,” she said.

While the ability to earn from anywhere is welcome, it’s clear that at least one of the proverbial elephants in the room throughout many of the hybrid work conversations remains that being “at home” is often interpreted as something like “in the domain of women,” and therefore stigmatized. It’s also clear that the issues women and people of color have always faced in terms of recognition for their contributions remain persistent, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

What’s less clear is if companies are willing to take a hard look at why remote work and hybrid schedules are so appealing, and if organizations will use this as a chance to undertake actual change. 

Right now, it seems like not much has changed at all.

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About

Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel If the Ice Had Held and the forthcoming collection What If We Were Somewhere Else. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Business Insider, and Ms. and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.