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The Future of Work's diversity challenge - prevent hybrid working models from fuelling a gender imbalance

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett April 5, 2021
Hybrid working models are likely to pre-dominate in the Vaccine Economy, but they need to managed carefully to prevent gender inequality from becoming worse.


While a post-pandemic shift to hybrid remote/office working models seems inevitable, there are a number of unintended consequences that organizations need to get to grips with in the emerging Vaccine Economy world of work, not least around gender divide implications.

Pre-pandemic, there had been a push to encourage remote and flexible working, not least in the tech sector, as one means of enhancing diversity and inclusion in an industry that desperately needs it.

But now that lockdown has made that dream come true for the worst of reasons and hybrid working seems to have become the favored model for the foreseeable future, there could be a number of unintended consequences. Stephen Frost, CEO and founder of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) consultancy Frost Included, explains:

I don’t think the flexible working campaign before COVID could have envisaged the dark scenario that’s come about in some instances, with some women having to give up their jobs after being unable to balance caring roles or finding themselves potentially exposed to more domestic violence. So a year on, we’re realising that you have to be careful what you wish for.

As a result, he also has sympathy with the concerns raised in a report by the Harvard Business Review last year entitled ‘Why WFH Isn’t Necessarily Good for Women'. The article intimates that flexible work options may not prove to be the “big equalizer” that many had hoped for.

Potential problems, at least some of which result from phenomena such as distance bias, include fewer opportunities for informal networking and access to important projects. This situation, in turn, tends to lead to poorer pay and promotion prospects. As Frost points out:

It’s well known that people are disadvantaged when working from home and this kind of response appears in lots of other ways too. For example, we already know from research that there are lots of spurious reasons why some people get on and others don’t. Taller men earn more than shorter ones, for instance, and extroverts tend to be promoted more. So we know these correlations exist.

Disproportionate impact on women

But the worry is that, as society increasingly moves into a hybrid-working world, such issues could disproportionately affect women. Because females still tend to be the primary carers, it follows that they are more likely to take advantage of the flexible/remote working opportunities available.

According to a report by the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development entitled ‘Megatrends: Flexible Working’,  for example, even before the pandemic, women were nearly twice as likely to work in this way than their male counterparts. This means that while more men may be keen to work in a hybrid fashion going forward, they still have a lot of ground to make up.

But such a scenario raises the spectre, particularly in the male-dominated world of tech, of increasing levels of segregation. The danger here is that offices could become even more homogeneously white, masculine domains than they were pre-COVID, potentially putting off minority groups from attending regularly and creating a vicious circle in the process.

As Perrine Farque, founder of D&I consultancy and training provider Inspired Human, points out, if flexible options are disproportionately taken up by some and not by others, they could unwittingly become a vehicle to increase existing gender divisions:

The danger is that if tech companies are complacent and don’t take conscious action over it, their offices could organically grow into places where there are just white males. That was already the case in some tech company offices before COVID, but post-COVID, I could 100% see it happening more widely.

A key challenge in this context, Farque says, is that many employers fail to recognise their own “complacency about gender equality”, leading to a disconnect between their own perceptions and those of affected employees. This situation can result in them “resting on their laurels” as they “believe we already live in a world with equal access”.

To illustrate the point, she cites a survey by compensation software supplier PayScale, which reveals that while just under three quarters (74%) of men believe that both genders enjoy equal opportunities at work, the same applies to less than half (49%) of women and only two out of five (42%) Women of Color.

If this situation is left to continue and distance bias allowed to take hold, Farque fears that the next 12 to 24 months could see much of the progress women have made in moving into leadership positions to date rolled back as the remote talent pipeline is increasingly overlooked.

Issues of age and experience

But Chris Underwood, Leadership Development and Executive Search Specialist at Adastrum Consulting, is not so sure. He dismisses it as too “simplistic” a view that in a hybrid-working world more males will return to the office than women, who are more likely to opt for working from home:

It won’t be as black-and-white as that because, apart from everything else, lots of males have loved the flexibility of remote working and will want to continue. Acceptance of remote working has fundamentally changed and no one’s going to go back to being in the office full-time.

Instead a key area of concern for Underwood relates to issues of age and experience. The thesis here is that many older, experienced personnel are keen to continue taking as much advantage as possible of the flexibility afforded by remote working, having the networks and expertise in place to do so effectively.

But the same is not necessarily true of younger, inexperienced workers who often have much more to gain from being in the office, including knowledge and skills acquisition and having opportunities to socialise. As a result, the worry is that if employers are not careful, their offices could progressively become the domain of the young.

In order to address these concerns, Frost believes employers would benefit from taking three key steps. The first is to “intervene intelligently” by carefully thinking through what kind of culture they desire, and how different working approaches could support this goal.

To this end, Tauhidah Shakir, Chief Diversity Officer at cloud-based payroll and HR software provider Paylocity, recommends obtaining input from female, and other minority, staff on how they and where they would prefer to work and how best to support them. As she says:

Leaders often make assumptions about what people want or need, but if you just talk to employees, it’s the best way to find out.

The second step, says Frost, is to focus on output and what it is the organisation is trying to achieve, before evaluating how a blended working approach might help and how best to incentivise any behavioral change.

The third phase, meanwhile, involves using data to analyze and measure the impact of working from home on different demographics in areas, such as pay and progression, so that action can be taken should disparities arise.

My take

While it is still very early days in the move to hybrid working and most tech employers are still trying to crack the code for success, the importance of the notion that to be forewarned is to be forearmed should not be underestimated in order to avoid unintended consequences.

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