Sian Beilock is president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
Before covid-19 shut my office, I didn’t pay much attention to one of my most important workplace benefits. But nearly a year later, it’s a perk I can’t stop daydreaming about. Eight precious hours, five days a week, when I could forget the unfolded laundry, unemptied dishwasher and kid-related clutter from one end of the apartment to the other. In short, the luxury of being able to focus on my work.
With vaccination rates rising, many businesses are making plans to reopen. And in the wake of this mandatory nationwide experiment in working from home, there’s plenty of talk about the new normal of a post-covid workplace. Hybrid or all-remote schedules make powerful recruiting tools and look great on paper — carrying the promise of improved equity by giving employees the flexibility to better juggle work and life.
But as the head of a women’s college and a cognitive scientist, I have some serious reservations.
Ample pre-pandemic evidence from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development time-use studies showed working women in heterosexual partnerships did the majority of child care and domestic work. Women also carried heavier mental loads, volunteering their brain space to remember doctor’s appointments, child-care sign-ups, birthday RSVPs and all the other logistics that keep a family going. In my field, we call this “cognitive labor,” and the disparity in women’s responsibilities vs. men’s is a known source of marital conflict and stress.
After covid-19 cloistered white-collar parents at home, men increased their domestic contributions — but women continued to do more of the chores and shoulder more of the responsibility for overall management of the household.
The expectation that women will serve as primary caregivers is a major reason for their exodus from the workforce. All of which raises the question: If remote work is here to stay, will the proposed flexibility actually result in greater equity, employee satisfaction and retention — let alone provide the mental health benefits women need to do our jobs well?
Smart policies — whether in the public or private sector — are those that consider intended and unintended consequences. After all, strong research shows that even policies explicitly designed to support women do not help all women equitably — usually leaving Black women, other women of color and those with low incomes behind.
Workplace flexibility, which is supposed to help all working people with caregiving roles, is no different. If male partners feel less responsibility for domestic labor, they will be less likely to exercise the option for remote work. I see this already, even at the women’s college I run: The majority of workers are women, but a lot of the ones who show up at the office these days are men.
As we should all know by now, representation and the cues we get about it matter. A well-known study from the University of Washington found that when a computer science classroom was decorated with stereotypically man-cave trappings such as sci-fi posters and electronic equipment, college women who entered reported less interest in computer science than those who entered the same classroom when it featured more neutral décor. In short, feeling as though we don’t belong has a direct effect on our relationship to our work.
If female professionals become scarcer at the office, more women will feel as though they don’t belong and opt to work remotely. So women will be even scarcer. This is a potentially dangerous cycle that threatens the strides in gender equity at the office that have been made in the past several decades. Women will miss out on the connections, networking and mentorship that lead to advancement. Meanwhile, they will experience increased loneliness and the stress that comes from feeling that the division between their work and their home life has eroded.
So what should well-intentioned companies and managers do? If you think flexible work will boost equity, especially for parents, it is critical to consider what other policies and practices must be in place to advance this goal. Providing paid family and parental leave — as opposed to just maternity leave — and encouraging employees to take it is one example. Ensuring managers do not favor in-person employees for mentorships, in evaluations or for other opportunities is another.
Also, consider having rotating days in the office. Not only does it provide flexibility and potentially save money through the sharing of desks and other facilities, it also equalizes the playing field with respect to the in-person face time men and women get.
Pay transparency, support for backup child or elder care, and employee assistance programs that can help with stress or burnout should all be on the table as part of this current “future of the office” conversation. Because without a comprehensive approach to closing gender-based gaps in the workplace, flexibility alone might widen them. And as just about any working mother would tell you right now: We can’t afford to ignore what Vice President Harris has so rightly identified as a national emergency facing female workers.