Home » The Work-From-Home Revolution Is Also a Trap for Women

The Work-From-Home Revolution Is Also a Trap for Women

by Narges Mohammadi

They’ve gained all the perks that come with flexibility, but have also become one-woman safety nets.

For many women, the work-from-home revolution has felt, for the first time, as if they might just be able to reach that mythical place of having it all. Women love the reduced or nonexistent commuting times; they love spending less time on their physical appearance and less money on their wardrobe. Hard-charging working mothers love that they can arrange their days to volunteer for their kids’ bake sale between Zoom meetings, dissolving that invisible line with the stay-at-home crowd. Women of color love not being exhausted from working in close physical proximity with White people and their microaggressions. I can’t tell you the number of women who’ve told me what a relief it is avoid going through pregnancy and postpartum in the often very masculine space of the physical office. Women like making their own lunches without others’ commentaries on them. They like being able to use their own bathrooms.

Extensive survey data have repeatedly revealed as much, as do the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with women about work scenarios over the past two years. Some mothers in intense, male-dominated industries such as finance or law or with older leadership teams feel pressure to go into the office more than they’d like. A woman whose staff is almost entirely female, told me that the push to physically show up isn’t coming from her manager, or even the CEO, but the board, which is composed of people whose years of parenting young children are far in the rearview mirror. But overall, if a company is offering flexible work, women are taking it. One 2021 study found that 60% of women say that if their company attempts to force them back into the office full time, they will look for employment elsewhere. For women, flexibility itself is no longer just a perk but indispensable.

There’s one significant catch in this WFH utopia. That additional flexibility opens up a space, and that space is quickly filled with responsibilities that were once more equally distributed: between partners in a relationship, but also between citizens and the society of which they are a part.

Take the fairly common scenario of two parents who work in office jobs in or around a city. One kid goes to elementary school full time; the other is still in day care. Before the pandemic, the woman’s workplace, like so many workplaces, discouraged remote work aside from emergencies. As a result, the family had a robust network of paid and familial options in place for days when the day care closed or the public school had an early release. One parent did drop-off; the other did pickup; they both worked from about 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. each day.

Over the past two years, most of those clear boundaries and carefully designed arrangements have dissolved. The woman’s workplace has instituted a hybrid setup, in which all employees are required to be in the office two days a week. As the primary bearer of the mental load, she can start prepping dinner at 4 p.m. while still working remotely, so that when the kids come home, she isn’t trying to attend to their needs and scrambling to get food on the table. The norms at her partner’s job, however, are for daily or near-daily in-person work. He’s still commuting 30 minutes or more to and from the office. He also makes more money, in part because he didn’t have to leave the workforce twice for maternity leave.

No matter how theoretically equitable the marriage is, you can see who would naturally pick up more of the domestic and caregiving responsibilities: the partner who is often in the home, with greater proximity to the kids, and whose career is already consciously or subconsciously deprioritized because, well, it pays less. When the day care shuts down because it’s short-staffed or one of the kids is sick, she can cover.

In this way, extra flexibility becomes a blessing and a burden for women in the contemporary American workplace. It makes family life much easier. But it can also default into a far more regressive division of labor than either member of a couple intended.

You might be asking: Surely, some women do make more than their husbands and are the privileged breadwinner in the family! This is indeed the case in about 25% of heterosexual married households, but exact numbers are hard to find because lots of people in heterosexual households where the woman makes more lie about it. Global studies have found that same-sex couples are far more likely to equally split unpaid domestic labor. And what about all the men whose jobs might offer more flexibility than their spouses?

Here’s where it gets complicated: When it comes to flexibility, many men aren’t taking it, even when it’s available. There still isn’t great data around on who’s back in the office, but we do know that in a survey of 10,000 knowledge workers from this past May, 60% of mothers want to work remotely from three to five days a week, compared with 50% of fathers.

Although many fathers have enjoyed the ways remote work has allowed them to be more physically present in their children’s lives, in many companies, particularly male-dominated ones (which is most) there’s still a prevailing assumption that men aren’t equitable or primary caregivers. In these organizations, long hours in the office—and declining your full parental leave—has long been the way in which a male employee proves his dedication and masculinity. That understanding is often modeled by leadership, which is still overwhelmingly male-dominated and who, not coincidentally, also voices the strongest desire to be back in the office: 44% of executives want to be back in the office full time, compared with 17% of nonexecutives.

But part of the problem, too, is that many men don’t mind going into the office as much. These fathers may not love the office, but they don’t view flexibility as an absolute necessity to making their family’s lives continue to run smoothly. Or, in some cases, they are consciously or subconsciously choosing to distance themselves from the possibility of doing more unpaid domestic labor.

These sorts of decisions show up in the data gathered around paid and unpaid labor over the past two years. A study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 61.5% of mothers of children under 12 reported taking on the majority or entirely of extra care work in 2020, compared with 22.4% of fathers. (Notably, fathers in two-parent two-income households consistently overestimate the amount of care work they perform—a phenomenon that continued into the pandemic). What’s more, the study found that even when the father was unemployed and the mother was employed, the mother still did more of the unpaid care work.

Sometimes the load of that extra care work—and the continued lack of access to outside care—meant women had to leave their jobs altogether. In the first months of the pandemic, mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. The so-called she-cession—in which 1.1 million women left the workforce over the course of the first year of the pandemic, making up 63% of all jobs lost—was, as many have noted, a she-cession for Black and Latina women in particular, who were more likely to work in fields like hospitality or retail. But as the authors of the OECD study point out, the more accurate term would’ve been a mom-cession. Around the globe, “women’s work losses were driven in large part by the outcomes of mothers, specifically, who often took on additional (unpaid) care of their children during school shutdowns.”

Although kids are no longer in virtual school, the effects of those early decisions—and a refusal in the US to prop up the spiraling child-care industry—have established patterns that are hard to shake, especially because after-school and summer care remain inconsistently available or unaffordable for many families. This summer, women’s employment numbers have continued to rise, but many moms still cannot conceptualize a way to reenter the workforce or continue to struggle to balance the additional care demands with the persistent demands of work.

Flexible work makes that struggle survivable. But it doesn’t make it a scenario in which mothers thrive. I’ve been thinking about the difference between the two alongside the findings of Deloitte’s 2022 Women at Work survey, in which 53% of the 5,000 women surveyed reported higher levels of stress than a year ago. A whopping 46% felt burned out, and 33% had taken time off to deal with their mental health. Among women actively looking for a new job, 40% of women cited burnout as their main reason.

One source of their burnout is certainly the workplace itself. In my reporting for this piece, almost everyone had a story about a clueless leader who still didn’t understand why no one wanted to commute into an empty office or participate in a tone-deaf mental wellness initiative. But the upside of flexible work still far outweighed the prospect of going back into the office full time. Some women explained how their companies are working to combat the sort of proximity bias that could stall women’s advancement, in which the workers who tend to get promoted are the ones who are most often physically on-site. The vast majority were generally grateful that their organizations were still trying to figure out hybrid iterations, even if some of those iterations were clunky and annoying.

The problem, they said, isn’t the flexibility itself. It was how that flexibility has facilitated their transformation into one-woman safety nets. In one conversation, a woman who works in the field of human rights detailed all the specific and actionable ways that her employer could improve its policies around flexibility and productivity. But when I asked her if most of the problems in her life were the result of work policy or societal norms, her response was unequivocal: Her employer was doing a lot and could do more, but there’s only so much any organization can do to counteract the currents of a society becoming more and more hostile to women in general and mothers in particular.

Women have long been socialized to serve, to do more with and for less. Over the past century, there have been efforts to better compensate and open paths for women in their work outside the home—everything from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity or sexual orientation, to the modest improvements in breast pump technology.

At the same time, some public institutions and nonprofits have been working to fund and expand affordable child care outside the home and a normalization of more equitable labor distribution inside the home.

But at this point, the infrastructure of care has been crumbling for decades, and, in many places, has been completely wiped out by the pandemic. Most corners of society are still stubbornly organized as if every family includes a person who attends to the needs of the family full time. For as much as we ostensibly venerate equitable partnership, working mothers, and parents in general, society is incredibly hostile to the cultivation of all of the above.

Instead of reengineering societal rhythms and reimagining our care systems in the wake of the pandemic, we have done what we have done for the past 40 years: turned to individual families and private enterprise to solve the problem for themselves. Within this scenario, flexible work feels less like a perk and more like an incredibly depressing concession—the only way for companies to try to hang on to their female employees.

An organization can try its best to mitigate societal trends and burdens. It can set a shining example of how to make careers accessible to women and moms. It can give women incredible flexibility, the empty suitcase to pack and carry as they choose. And to be clear, women have and will continue to gravitate toward companies putting in the time and effort and policy development to make work sustainable.

But even the most progressive and flexible organization can’t control the ways in which partners and governments opt to fill that empty suitcase well above capacity, and act surprised when so many women collapse under the imperative to carry it with head held high. If companies actually want to counter the overarching societal assault on women, the battlefield absolutely includes their own company’s policies, and, even more importantly, the way leadership authentically and consistently models them.

That’s just one battlefield, though. Confronting the larger war on women demands something beyond HR, something that, for many organizations, might even feel beyond their purview as one company. But they’re wrong. One corporation can only do so much. But hundreds, thousands, coming together to support legislation that works to fundamentally reorient the way we’re able to organize, share, and distribute care and domestic labor? That’s how you win the war.


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