With more employers putting return-to-office plans in full swing, one cohort is coming back to in-person work noticeably less than another. Working women were more likely to do some or all of their jobs from home in 2022 — 41% — compared to 28% of men, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Experts say this trend will most likely continue and could have major implications for gender equity in the workplace, potentially causing the gender pay gap to widen and the glass ceiling to thicken.
“If companies are encouraging everyone back to work, and men are the ones that are going, they’re going to be the ones that are awarded and women will erroneously be seen as not working as hard,” said Molly Johnson Jones, CEO of Flexa, a job search platform for flexible roles.
Anne Genduso, a career coach who works almost exclusively with women, said almost all of her current clients are looking for remote jobs. That’s especially true for those who are parents. Some are slightly more open to hybrid arrangements, though nearly all are preferring remote roles.
“I wouldn’t even say they favor remote work, a lot of them feel like it’s necessary,” Genduso said.
Remote working arrangements during the pandemic allowed women in particular to better tend to household duties and childcare responsibilities that they traditionally shoulder more than men. The same BLS survey found that on an average day, 22% of men did the housework, like cleaning or laundry, compared with 47% of women.
With fewer women returning to in-person work than men, proximity bias or leadership favoring workers based on their physical presenteeism rather than actual output they deliver, is a key concern.
“Managers have admitted they believe workers who come to the office more frequently are higher performers than those who don’t,” Brent Cassell, vp advisory at Gartner said.
“We do not want to do a disservice to the folks who aren’t coming into the office as frequently as others,” Cassell said.
Men are also more likely to boast about their accomplishments to higher-ups and supervisors at work than women, said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester.
“When promotion time comes up, will it be that women will be less successful at getting promotions because they’re not playing politics by being in the office more often?” Cooper said.
And a gender promotion gap already exists. Women on average earned higher performance ratings than male employees, yet scored lower as they related to their potential within the company, a 2022 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found. As a result, women on average were 14% less likely to be promoted than their male peers.
“It’s all about a perception of how you’re doing your job, not about how you’re actually performing your job,” Genuso said.
This trend will likely continue with more RTO rollouts, especially as they become stronger mandates. One way companies can work to mitigate this is by nixing those plans and making flexible work available to everyone.
“Men feel more uncomfortable asking for flexible working because it feels like they don’t need it as much,” Johnson Jones said.
“The key to gender equality within the workplace is flexibility being normalized to everybody,” she said.