This year’s International Women’s Day theme is gender equality but as one expert from RMIT University says there is a very real flipside to the benefit many of us are experiencing with hybrid working and that is the impact it could have on gender inequality.
Here Dr Leonora Risse, Senior Lecturer in Economics, RMIT University and National Chair, Women in Economics Network, shares her views on the impact of hybrid working.
Our transition back to the workforce, after the experience of working from home during the pandemic, brings potential benefits as well as risks. Workers are certainly re-evaluating what really matters to them and have discovered that working from home is where they feel most content and most productive.
On the flipside, we know that there are productive benefits from being around our colleagues in person, as this is largely how collegial bonds are formed and how workers’ voices and views can be heard. This means there is a potential risk for gender inequality: if women end up being the ones who disproportionately opt to work from home or adopt a hybrid arrangement, compared to men who are more likely to opt to return to the office full-time – then women will inadvertently suffer from a lack of visibility, recognition and opportunity.
The research on unconscious bias tells us that we are more likely to form affinities with the people who we spend time with, and that this affinity bias can influence our decisions when it comes to promotion. As a consequence of opting to work from home, for example, a woman might end up being overlooked for a promotion in favour of her male colleagues who works full-time on site and is able to form stronger connections with his manager.
This doesn’t mean that we should compel women to return to the office or worksite full-time. Instead, it means that employers need to think wisely and inclusively about how to support and recognise the work of all workers. To reduce these gender patterned biases, it also means we should be aiming to encourage just as many men, as women, to opt for hybrid arrangements so that they can participate more fully in their families’ lives at home too.
Workers’ preference to working-from-home is a trend that is not going to subside. The pandemic has opened up the opportunities for us to embrace its upsides. Research is revealing that workers from under-represented cohorts are more likely to favour working from home, because it means they are better able to avoid the instances of harassment, bullying, discriminatory microaggressions and antagonism that they encountered in-person in their workplace.
This was especially the case for women and workers from minority cultural backgrounds, as well as people living with disability, many of whom have reported that working from home brought improvements to their wellbeing. This should be a wake-up call to employers that they desperately need to take these issues of inequality seriously if they expect workers to feel inspired about returning to their workplace.