Could working from home stall women’s careers?

After a policymaker’s warning last week, People Management asked the experts whether remote work really hinders female employees’ progression – and how HR can help

Experts have said it’s up to employers to support women who work remotely after a Bank of England (BoE) policymaker warned that women who did work from home could see their careers stall.

Catherine Mann, an economist at the BoE, said that not only were women failing to return to work to the same extent as men after the pandemic, but that when they were, they were more likely to be working from home.

Speaking at a Financial News magazine event on Thursday (11 November), Mann predicted that firms would start developing a “two track” approach to employment that favoured office-based workers over those working remotely, and raised concerns that women would be far more likely to land in the latter category.

“We will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who's going to be on which track, unfortunately," she said, adding that working from home could also exclude women from the informal, social aspects of the office.

While virtual platforms are “way better than they were even five years ago…  we’re not at a point yet where we can have a watercooler conversation in a virtual setting,” she said.

Many high-profile names, including the chancellor Rishi Sunak, have previously raised concerns that remote workers miss out on learning and career opportunities made available to their office-based colleagues. However, Mann is not alone in highlighting how women are likely to be disproportionately affected.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

ONS data from October found that while men reported home working aided the creation of new ideas, women were more likely to see it as a barrier. Women were also more likely than men to say working from home gave them more time to work, with fewer distractions.

In addition, the Women and Equalities Committee recently released evidence that when working from home, “the number of hours that women have of uninterrupted work is minimal, while fathers are much less likely to be interrupted”.

Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said that Mann’s prediction of a two-track employment model was a real risk. Despite the developments of the last two years, office working was still seen as the norm, she explained, adding: “Anyone that steps outside of that to work flexibly is ‘othered’”.

“If we continue to prioritise face-to-face work, fail to challenge our underlying beliefs and let our biases lead the way, women – and other people who cannot come into the office all the time – will lose out,” she said.

But, Dale said the ‘watercooler’ metaphor was “tired and overused”, and suggested employers instead consider how they create more meaningful interactions.

Initiatives like online chat spaces, in-house social media platforms and coffee roulette – where colleagues are randomly connected over a video call – could “increase relationships, casual conversations and spontaneity”, she said.  

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, agreed that it was up to businesses to ask themselves how they can make new hybrid ways of working function for all their employees. 

But, she added, the issue also raised more fundamental questions about gender roles in society. While the pandemic had shown it was possible to do a number of jobs remotely and flexibly, women “still bear the primary responsibility for childcare, and other unpaid work”, Stephenson said.

“Rather than telling women they need to get back into the office, we need to be asking why this unpaid work isn’t shared more evenly between women and men,” she said.

On a practical level, Yvonne Gallagher, employment partner at Harbottle and Lewis, warned that employers could face claims of indirect discrimination if workers who adopt a hybrid or remote working pattern “are then regarded as disadvantaged as a result in career progression paths”.

Businesses could also open themselves up to the risk of unlawful discrimination, said Gallagher, pointing to growing evidence that ethnic minority groups were also “more likely to opt for more home working, as will those, predominantly female, with significant caring responsibilities” which could leave employers vulnerable to unlawful discrimination issues.