Are men-dominated offices the future of the workplace?
Workers are heading back into the office, but men and women may not return to their desks equally. This could impact gender equality and advancement, keeping women behind in the workplace.
As workers trickle back into offices, some will face tough choices about when and how to return to their desks. Although certain familiar faces and routines may reappear – it’s back to bumping into Iain from accounting at the coffee machine – the composition of the workplace could also be significantly altered. With many companies expected to offer employees newly flexible and hybrid formats, given the option, women and men may make different decisions.
A recent UK-based poll of 2,300 leaders, managers and employees showed that 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, versus just 56% of fathers. If more men opt to go back to work in-person while more women choose to work remotely, offices might become increasingly dominated by men.
And although it’s unlikely that office workers will comprise only men, these figures point to a possible scenario in which women truly could occupy relatively few desks. This scenario could intensify gender inequality across the spectrum by reinforcing domestic roles, and stalling women’s earning potential and prospects for career advancement – many of which are positively correlated with in-person work.
While there are certainly benefits to giving flexible options to workers who can do their jobs from home, there’s also a risk of widening the long-standing gender gap in housework and caring responsibilities that’s already been exacerbated by Covid-19. Understanding the challenges that lie ahead may help mitigate the harmful effects of a post-pandemic gender imbalance at work and home.
A gender gap that’s primed to grow
While unpaid household labour has always been a barrier to women advancing at work, Covid-19 has aggravated the situation. Recent studies of British and American households showed that working women have continued to shoulder the lion’s share of childcare and household burdens during the pandemic, and more working mothers than fathers have reduced or adapted their working hours to accommodate childcare.
Yet for many women who work remotely, the situation isn’t as simple as going back to the office as soon as the option arises.
“Women may feel responsible for handling family-related matters and being away from home may create a feeling of guilt,” says Seulki “Rachel” Jang, an assistant professor of industrial-organisational psychology at the University of Oklahoma, US, who has studied gender roles at work. “Researchers also found that women experienced more psychological stress during the pandemic as compared to men, so women may not feel ready to return to the office, where they need to hide that stress as a working professional.”
The wage gap is also likely to play a major role in keeping women at home.