Will working from home hurt women’s career advancement?

Photo: @darby via Twenty20
Nov 18, 2021

Bank of England monetary committee member Catherine Mann caused a stir in the U.K. media last week after explaining that, due to childcare and schooling issues, more women are working remotely and will likely continue to do so. Consequently, she said, women risk getting caught in a “she-cession” and missing opportunities for advancement.

Video conferencing and other virtual work methods, she contends, can’t replicate spontaneous office interactions that support recognition and advancement in many workplaces.

“There is the potential for two tracks,” she said at an event for women in finance hosted by Financial News. “There’s the people who are on the virtual track and people who are on the physical track. And I do worry that we will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately.”

Ms. Mann’s opinion ran counter to a recent YouGov survey taken in August finding 56 percent of British women saying they thought working from home would help them progress at work, as childcare and other domestic duties become less of a hindrance to working full-time.

A FlexJobs survey taken over March and April found 80 percent of women indicating remote work options are among the most important factors to consider when evaluating a new job versus 69 percent of men.

Women, according to the study, were less concerned than men about the challenges of remote work, including collaborating and managing coworker relationships. They also favored many of the top benefits of remote working, such as better work-life balance and more control/flexibility over work schedules.

A recent survey of Millennial women by theSkimm found two-thirds saying remote options are a priority, with 65 percent believing they have better work-life balance when working remotely.

Two-thirds in the survey, however, believe they are missing opportunities by not being in the office where they can discuss their career goals and development. Seventy-six percent said they miss seeing friends and colleagues; more than half think working on-site helps provide routine and a set place to work; and 40 percent feel more pressure to go back to the office if they know their male colleagues are there.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is the work-from-home trend a positive or negative for women’s career development and retailer’s overall gender equality goals? Do you agree remote workers face greater challenges with advancement or that they can overcome the potential obstacles?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The answer to this really depends on the company."
"How could it not be helpful? And it certainly can’t hurt, since there will be less opportunity to call them “shrill” or “aggressive.” It’s a step forward."
"It’s a fact that classic corporate culture needs to change and productivity during lockdowns/pandemic proved that change is possible."

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15 Comments on "Will working from home hurt women’s career advancement?"

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Neil Saunders

The answer to this really depends on the company. In companies where people are valued and work is assessed based on what people produce and contribute, anyone working from home will be fine. In a company where there are inherent biases, an obsession with process, and bad cultures such as having to be seen in the office at all hours, then working from home is a disadvantage. However longer term those companies will also shoot themselves in the foot by not retaining great people.

Carol Spieckerman

Ms. Mann spoke of a two-track system (virtual or physical) yet many women I know and work with operate on a third track that combines work-from-home with selective travel, in-person meetings, and/or office time. I do hear repeatedly that mothers who work from home are often exhausted as they still take on the lion’s share of home and childcare responsibilities. In terms of opportunity and advancement, company culture plays a big role. Some companies are adept at managing virtual teams while others just can’t seem to get in the groove. For these companies, work-from-home is portrayed as an exception that should be rectified when things get back to “normal.” In that scenario, women have to decide if opting for home-based work is a career liability.

Bethany Allee

Catherine Mann has some good points. While women do tend to be primary caregivers, it’s worth stepping back and taking that element out of the equation to address the broader issue. You can also take being a woman out of the equation, because the question being asked is: Does being a fully remote person limit your career? The answer is no, but it comes with some caveats. The biggest of which is, you will still need to be physically present (this means a host of things). This means you will still have to put in face time. As most of us found out during the beginning of the pandemic: If you have a pre-existing relationship, you can get by with virtual interactions. If you don’t, it’s extremely challenging, if not impossible.

My answer comes from being a woman in a career that includes 25+ years of being a highly successful remote worker.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Working at home is not the issue. It becomes an issue if part of the workplace (men or women) works from home and part works online. When everyone is online the informal conversations can still happen with everyone. If part of the workforce is not online all the time the informal conversations will be bifurcated with both parts losing out on some conversations. Being the part of the population that continues to work online will allow people the opportunity to continue to work but may disadvantage them for promotions. It needs to be a conscious choice.

Dick Seesel

As Neil says, the issue depends on the company culture. If an employer places excess value on “face time” in the office, it will have more difficulty hiring and retaining both male and female workers. Inside those companies, it’s true that career advancement is in jeopardy. But — given the demand for qualified managers and the rapid growth of WFH options — it’s probably a shortsighted approach.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

The phrase out of sight, out of mind applies to remote workers seeking career advancement. Unless everyone is working remotely, those who do not regularly engage and interact in the office will have fewer opportunities for career advancements and lower pay for commensurate work. Women have historically been disadvantaged in career progression, and a two-track career of remote and office workers will exacerbate those historical trends.

Paula Rosenblum

How could it not be helpful? And it certainly can’t hurt, since there will be less opportunity to call them “shrill” or “aggressive.” It’s a step forward.

David Spear
David Spear
Industry Consulting, Retail, CPG and Hospitality
1 year 6 months ago

Working remotely full time has its pros and cons, just as 100 percent on-site does, but I think women have tremendous opportunities ahead of them, especially if they can manage a hybrid of in-person and remote. This type of arrangement offers the best of both worlds and should not limit their ability to have important “face time” with employees, senior leaders and mentors. The key is company culture and supportive senior leadership, where they have women in key roles who embrace the hybrid model and make it work.

Doug Garnett

We seem to get two different viewpoints based on short term or long term concerns. Consistently, it appears that women like the work from home concept for being able to fit better into their lives right now. Imagining what the downside will be is difficult in the here and now.

And I agree, by making a choice to work from home there is key risk to advancement unless one is in a job which is spent mostly isolated anyway.

Warren Thayer

Why aren’t men doing their share of childcare and schooling? I’ve been hearing of progress for the last 30 years, but the relatively small gains have come at a snail’s pace. This is the elephant in the living room that wasn’t even mentioned here. More women are working remotely because of childcare and schooling? Ok, but many more men and women are working remotely, and hopefully this is helping bring about change in more sharing of the home workload.

“Video conferencing can’t replicate office interactions.” Well, of course not. But if we’re truly heading back to offices over the next year, companies wanting to keep great workers should provide on-site childcare and offer more flexibility in work schedules for both genders. As pointed out earlier, much of all this will depend on company culture and the relative presence of misogyny. It’s always there, and it’s such a waste. Most companies need to do much more to bring half of humanity into “the mainstream.“

Georganne Bender

When I worked in the corporate world all I had to worry about were the meetings that took place prior to the actual meeting, and the meetings that took place on the golf course where women were not invited.

I absolutely believe that women who work remotely are at a disadvantage, I know this from conversations with friends who, while happy to be given the choice to work from home, are frustrated at not being as visible as they were pre-COVID-19.

In some industries/companies, working remotely isn’t the ideal situation, even when it is necessary. I am hopeful that company leaders will be fair to female employees who are working virtually, but I am not holding my breath.

Ryan Mathews
The right answer is potentially both. Obviously if remote work continues human resources systems, classic corporate culture, and management and promotion models are going to have to evolve. Working remote does make a little harder for employees of any gender to “manage up” but that could easily result in advancement for anyone whose work has to stand on its own merits rather than being lobbied for. I suspect that, in many cases, that might benefit women. But we have to look at this on an individual basis. Not all women are caregivers, so many female employees are wrestling with a different set of challenges/opportunities. And some companies, like Trader Joe’s, are progressive in terms of their childcare policies – regardless of a parent’s gender, while many others clearly are not. Ditto for senior care. Some employers are more flexible for employees taking care of aging parents and others still see it as “the employee’s problem.” But one thing is for sure; real changes in HR policies (as opposed to crisis management) are needed and needed… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

It’s not positive or negative – it depends on the company and on the individual. Some business can be done well at home, some can’t. Some people (women or men) work well at home, some don’t. It’s not a gender issue, it’s not a promotion issue, unless a company or a worker makes it one.

Liza Amlani

Whether women work from home or not, women face greater challenges than the work-from-home trend feeding into gender equality goals.

Let’s face it. Most men of a certain color will promote other men of the same color. The question should really be how do we push diversity into leadership roles so we have representation across gender/ability/visible minorities filling the seats at the leadership table.

This will require uncomfortable conversations and it’s awesome that we have platforms to talk about diversity and inclusion and question current ways of working/promoting women.

It’s a fact that classic corporate culture needs to change and productivity during lockdowns/pandemic proved that change is possible. This is not a question of WFH, it’s a question of why women are being singled out and not being promoted as much as men.

Craig Sundstrom

I went with “neither” because my belief is that participation in this “trend” would seem to be voluntary (or at least we can assume that at some point it will be). The practice itself would seem to be a negative, but the same thing can be said for anything that limits one’s involvement with a company — inability to travel, or relocate or raising a family, etc. — so I don’t know that we should single this out; and, of course, there’s a big difference between a willingness to do something, and an insistence on doing so.

"The answer to this really depends on the company."
"How could it not be helpful? And it certainly can’t hurt, since there will be less opportunity to call them “shrill” or “aggressive.” It’s a step forward."
"It’s a fact that classic corporate culture needs to change and productivity during lockdowns/pandemic proved that change is possible."

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