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The feminist case for remote work

Women working from home
12 March 2024
flexible working
remote work

In an age where remote work has become not just a trend but a necessity, the debate surrounding its efficacy and implications has intensified. Working from home isn't just about convenience or productivity; it's about dismantling traditional workplace structures that disproportionately disadvantage women.

The rise of remote work, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has offered a glimpse into a more equitable future for women in the workplace. Flexible work arrangements allow women to balance professional aspirations with personal obligations, without sacrificing one for the other. As the IWG Women Hybrid Workers Sentiment Survey highlights, the flexibility of hybrid work is perceived as an equaliser in the workplace, with positive impacts on career growth.

Organisations like EY, however, have begun to monitor office attendance more closely, raising concerns about the potential repercussions for female employees. Using swipe card entry data to track staff attendance and correlating it with performance ratings not only undermines the principles of trust and autonomy but also perpetuates outdated notions of productivity tied to physical presence.

CEOs and leaders are voicing concerns over productivity and are even asserting that the remote and hybrid work experiment of the past few years has reinforced the critical importance of sitting in an office. Wall Street executive Steven Rattner questioned the efficiency of remote work and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman labelled remote work “one of the tech industry’s work mistakes.” Is it a coincidence that the demographic which gained the most from the previous working system is the one also expressing the most apprehension about changing it?

Former EY leader Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab aptly warns of the risks associated with such monitoring practices, citing potential increases in turnover and decreases in retention rates, particularly among high-performing employees and millennials. Research corroborates these concerns, indicating that strict return-to-office mandates can lead to a decline in employees' intent to stay, especially among women facing greater caregiving responsibilities.

However, the promise of flexible work risks being overshadowed by the persistence of proximity bias — the tendency to favour those physically present in the office. This bias not only undermines the principles of inclusivity and diversity but also perpetuates gender disparities in pay and advancement opportunities. Reports of declining female appointments to UK financial services boardrooms serve as a stark reminder of the challenges women continue to face in traditional work environments, especially when ONS statistics reveal that men are working less hours than they did 25 years ago.

Progression should be based on merit and performance rather than physical presence in the office. Flexible work will continue to be a win for women, as long as it doesn’t come with penalties, like slower paths to promotions. And like parental leave, men need to use it as much as they can too and use flexible working to support gender equity.