Does remote work promote equity?

Rebecca Stropoli | Aug 18, 2021

Sections Economics

Collections Remote Work

At many companies, the future will involve remote work and more flexibility than before. That could be good for reducing the earnings gap between men and women—but only to a point. 

“In my mind, there’s no question that it has to be a plus, on net,” says Harvard’s Claudia Goldin. Before the pandemic, many women deemphasized their careers when they started families, she says. A mother wanting a more-flexible schedule might, for example, leave a major law firm for a boutique one. 

The cost of that flexibility has shrunk, Goldin says. It’s now more widely understood that many tasks can be done and deals made remotely, which reduces costs for employers. A Zoom meeting is much less expensive than a trip to Tokyo, so companies are inclined to let employees travel less and work from home more.

However, research from Jose Maria Barrero of the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, Chicago Booth’s Steven J. Davis, and Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom finds that women, on average, want more work-from-home days than men do, particularly college-educated women with children under 12, who are the most likely to want a full-time remote-work schedule.

If more women than men take companies up on their offers of flexibility and remote work, women may still experience costs in terms of fewer opportunities to advance, Goldin cautions. “If you don’t get men on board, you’re never going to have equity in the workplace,” she says. 

Moreover, the pandemic didn’t erase gender imbalances at home, even though it underscored them. For example, among couples who were both working remotely, 72 percent of mothers said they were primarily responsible for childcare, compared with 33 percent of men, finds research by University of Pennsylvania PhD student Allison Dunatchik, New York University’s Kathleen Gerson, University of Texas’s Jennifer Glass, Penn’s Jerry A. Jacobs, and UT PhD student Haley Stritzel. Further, mothers were far more likely than other household members to be spending time managing their children’s remote schooling—84 percent versus 50 percent of fathers. 

The gendered division of household labor from pre-pandemic days persisted; while it may not have gotten markedly worse, it did not improve even during drastically altered working conditions. “These findings suggest that gender remains a powerful force in organizing domestic work despite the greater flexibility that remote work allows,” the researchers write.

Other workers from marginalized groups may also be more likely to opt out of the office. Future Forum, a research and thought-leadership arm of Slack, whose messaging app facilitates remote work, reports that just 3 percent of Black knowledge workers who did their jobs remotely during the pandemic, versus 21 percent of their white counterparts, want to return to the office full time. Its survey also indicates that fewer Black professionals say they have a strong sense of belonging at work or are treated fairly. Remote work reduces the need to code-switch and to fend off office workers’ microaggressions, notes a Future Forum blog post. 

Employers that grant workers flexibility must do more than that to reduce bias and discrimination, says University of Pittsburgh’s Audrey J. Murrell. “While remote work seems like protection from noninclusive workplaces, microaggressions, and other challenges for Black professionals, it is not a long-term solution,” she says. “Remote work may address symptoms, but a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy is essential so that the pipeline of diverse talent with any organization is not lost.”