Women Want Flexibility at Work — Economists Worry It May Destroy Their Careers

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April 21, 2024 at 11:27AM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just changed the way people work, but the way people live their lives. For many of those who gained freedom by working from home, work is no longer the center of their life; instead, they have more ownership, control and flexibility.

But that flexibility may come with a costly price: career advancement. While many workers opt for full-time remote work, what they gain in flexibility and autonomy, they potentially lose in promotion and networking opportunities that are happening in person.

This isn’t just a remote work issue. It’s a women’s issue, too: women are twice as likely to opt for remote work than men. 

As workplaces reopen, a “self-select” group — namely, men — is more likely to choose to return to in-person working.

“That [self-select] group, largely men without caregiving responsibilities, could dominate promotions and relationship-building,” Kweilin Ellingrud, a director at McKinsey Global Institute, said to The Wall Street Journal. “That could put less-visible people with care responsibilities at a disadvantage.”

If women stay remote, economists worry they’ll miss out on promotion and networking opportunities that those who return to the office gain by going in. 

There’s already broken rung when it comes to promoting women. Across all industries and roles, only 86 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level. Women of color specifically lose ground at every step of the pipeline — “between the entry-level and the C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75%,” according to McKinsey’s 2021 Women In the Workplace report. 

The bias against those who chose flexible work — which is disproportionately women — can only widen this promotion gap.

But the answer isn’t making everyone return to in-person. For many women, that’s not even something they’d consider — twice as many women say they would quit if asked to return to the office five days a week, according to a ZipRecruiter study. Some feel the need to work from home because of childcare responsibilities; others like that they don’t need to dress up or commute to work. Some just like the flexibility. 

Whatever the reason, women shouldn’t be penalized for choosing to work remotely — especially as flexibility benefits both companies and employees. According to the Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey, 43% of respondents found they were more productive when they had flexible working hours. Workers with flexible schedules also report better well-being — sleeping better, feeling healthier and experiencing less stress. 

Flexibility is important for diversity at work, too: it opens doors to positions that have historically excluded women. 

“High-income jobs in finance, law, consulting and engineering that once required frequent travel and long hours are now easier for women to take, thanks to technology,” writes Harriet Torrey for the Wall Street Journal.

Women deserve to choose flexibility without having to worry they’re going to be left behind. 

Women who want to continue working remotely and don’t want to lose out on career advancement should be aware of their company’s proximity bias and make themselves hyper-visible in the workplace, especially when they’re not physically present. 

For remote working women, that means, sometimes, over-communicating about your work and what you’re doing, so your manager and colleagues can see what you’re working on — even if they can’t see you. It means bragging about yourself and your accomplishments is necessary, so your success is evident and recognized rather than hidden behind the scenes.

But the burden shouldn’t be on women to make their work seen and voices heard while working from home. It’s also up to companies to understand who’s choosing to work remotely, create career advancement opportunities for everyone, and look at biases they may have in their promotion practices.

Women have finally been able to work in a way that supports the lives they want to live. If companies truly want to support their women employees, they need to support the way they want to work, too. 


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

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