Women Face a Double Disadvantage in the Hybrid Workplace
Hybrid work arrangements can be configured in two very different ways: “flexible hybrid” and “fixed hybrid.” In a flexible hybrid system, the same employee is sometimes co-located and sometimes remote, so their location changes throughout a typical workweek. In a fixed hybrid system, some employees are always co-located while others are always remote, and their locations don’t change throughout the week. Why does this distinction matter? The author believes we can be cautiously optimistic about how women will fare in a flexible hybrid system, where they work remotely some of the time but in the office at least some of the time. On the other hand, though, there are pretty compelling reasons to be less optimistic about how women will fare in a fixed hybrid system, where they work remotely full-time while at least some of their colleagues are co-located. Especially here, leaders must be aware that women risk being doubly disadvantaged by working remotely in a hybrid system.
In recent polls, women typically report that they want to work fully or partly remotely at levels about 10% above men. I hear similar enthusiasm about remote work in my discussions with women in the executive education programs I teach at Wharton, as well as informally. The benefits they see include better work-life balance and more control over their time, making it easier to manage their families’ activities, in addition to the time and money they save by not commuting.
But what about hybrid work arrangements, where some employees are co-located and others are remote? Will these be good for women’s careers — their opportunities for promotion, advancement, and progression?
First, let’s more clearly define what we mean by hybrid work and distinguish between two types that are quite distinct but often conflated.
Hybrid work arrangements can be configured in two very different ways, which I call “flexible hybrid” and “fixed hybrid.” In a flexible hybrid system, the same employee is sometimes co-located and sometimes remote, so their location changes throughout a typical workweek. In a fixed hybrid system, some employees are always co-located while others are always remote, and their locations don’t change throughout the week.
Why does this distinction matter? I believe we can be cautiously optimistic about how women will fare in a flexible hybrid system, where they work remotely some of the time but in the office at least some of the time. On the other hand, though, there are pretty compelling reasons to be less optimistic about how women will fare in a fixed hybrid system, where they work remotely full-time while at least some of their colleagues are co-located. Especially here, leaders must be aware that women risk being doubly disadvantaged by working remotely in a hybrid system.
The Double Disadvantage
Extensive research findings have established that women are often disadvantaged relative to men in the workplace. There’s currently less research about the effects of working remotely, but it’s becoming clear that hybrid work arrangements often create power differences between those who are in and out of the office, and there are good reasons to expect that people who work remotely are likely to be disadvantaged, regardless of their gender. So, women who work remotely can find themselves disadvantaged in two ways.
Here are three key sources of this double disadvantage:
Access to mentoring and sponsorship
Studies have shown that mentoring relationships and powerful sponsors are critical for getting ahead in firms, but women often find it harder to build networks and develop advocates who will strongly support them in their careers. At the same time, working remotely makes it harder to develop mentoring or sponsorship relationships, because you’re less visible to those who might take an interest in your welfare and advancement. There are fewer opportunities to connect informally or strengthen relationships by popping by for advice or going out for lunch.
Assumptions about commitment
Women are often assumed to be less committed to their work and careers than men, especially if they’re mothers, as research on stereotypes confirms. Sometimes, women are encouraged to take accommodations that can derail their careers, such as moving to part-time work. Meanwhile, working remotely increases their risk of being viewed as less committed than their in-office colleagues, since their hard work away from the office is less visible to their peers and managers.
Speaking up — and being heard
Women sometimes find it harder to speak up in meetings or to their bosses than men, especially in male-dominated workplaces, and they may not be (or fear that they will not be) listened to as carefully or taken as seriously, making their workplaces feel less psychologically safe. Separately, people who work remotely can find it harder to speak up or be heard regardless of their gender, especially when not everyone is remote, since it can be even more difficult to interject a comment at the right moment or raise an unpopular point than when sitting together in the same room. These problems can compound each other, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a Catalyst survey of more than 1,000 U.S. working adults found that 45% of women business leaders reported that it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, and 20% of women said they had felt ignored or overlooked by their colleagues during video calls.
Recognizing the Risks
Clearly, the risks of double disadvantage are most acute in a fixed hybrid system, where women who work remotely full-time very rarely or never spend time with their colleagues in person. These risks are likely to be less acute in a flexible hybrid system, where the challenges of working remotely can be at least partially overcome by increased opportunities to build networks and develop mentors, more ways to demonstrate commitment visibly, and lower barriers to speaking up during the periods of co-located work.
Of course, some women might still find working remotely to be a very attractive option for the way they want to live their lives, despite understanding the potential risks to their career goals and prospects. Others may be unaware of the double disadvantage they face, or discount their relevance or dangers for themselves. Either way, these disadvantages still exist. So, for women who choose to work remotely, how can the potential risks to their careers and advancement be minimized?
The Responsibility Should Be Shared
Fortunately, there is lots of good advice out there for how women can build their careers, and mounting insight into how to be successful when working remotely. Because of the double disadvantage they face in hybrid settings, women who work remotely need to be especially aware of the potential risks they run — and especially active in addressing them. They should push themselves to step forward and take — for example, by asking for the resources they need, including mentoring, and increasing their efforts to be visible by finding ways to demonstrate commitment and opportunities to speak up and be heard.
At the same time, it’s critical that the burden should not fall solely on the shoulders of those women who are at a potential double disadvantage from working remotely. To help reduce the risks they face, their colleagues who work in the office also have a responsibility to step back and give — to offer resources to those working remotely, create opportunities for them to be visible, and so on.
Managers also have an important role: to create and maintain balance between those who are working remotely and those who are in the office, by recognizing the inequalities in their resources and visibility and making concerted efforts to offset them.
Finally, at the highest levels of the organization, senior leaders need to think very carefully not only about the types of hybrid working arrangements they’ll permit (i.e., flexible or fixed), but also about whether these could have unintended negative consequences for women (or anyone) over time. To avoid such consequences, they should design and implement policies and practices that can help level the playing field, such as annual-review criteria that don’t depend on face time and formal mentoring programs that don’t rely on personal connections. And of course, it’s always good practice when putting in place such important and far-reaching arrangements as hybrid working to schedule formal times to revisit them in the future, thoroughly review how well they’re serving all concerned, and modify them as necessary.