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Hybrid work model could create 'a ghetto,' warns Harvard economist—here are the dangers

"Companies didn't make many accommodations for what women needed."

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The pandemic has made a hybrid work model less of a perk and more of an expectation. This is especially true for women.

More than 40% of millennial women said remote work is very important or extremely important moving forward, according to a new survey from theSkimm. More than 1 in 5, 22%, said they would no longer consider working for an employer if work-from-home wasn't an option.

While some scholars believe flexible work will create a more inclusive workplace, others believe it will enforce a hierarchy of employees, putting those who work from home at the bottom. And because child care and other domestic duties overwhelmingly fall on women, it might often be women who opt to work from home and miss out on potential opportunities, says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University.

That "could lead to certain individuals getting promotions, clients, getting the better machinery that might be doled out to those who were there versus those who weren't there," she says. "Of those who aren't there, which would disproportionately be women, we worry a ghetto would be produced."

'At the heart of the Great Resignation is the plight of women'

Companies embracing a hybrid work model does reflect a recognition of how disproportionately the task of child care falls on women compared to men, says Joseph McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

A whopping 80% of working mothers reported taking the lead in remote learning for their kids during the pandemic, compared to just 31% of fathers, according to a FlexJobs survey.

"I think one thing the pandemic did was further highlight and reinforce the extent to which the double burden rests unevenly on women, as opposed to men," McCartin says. "In the past, employers have exploited that double burden. Basically, companies didn't make many accommodations for what women needed. They were perfectly happy to take advantage of women participating in the job market but not necessarily to facilitate it."

Now, with a great number of workers resigning and a labor shortage, companies can't as easily ignore the needs of women. Right now, there are 1.6 million less women in the workforce compared to February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I do sense that at the heart of the Great Resignation is the plight of women," McCartin says.

Hybrid work could create a 'two-tier system'

Pre-pandemic, remote workers were seen as "second-class citizens" in the workplace, says Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at the Columbia Business School.

In a workplace where face-time with bosses is valued, remote workers lost out regardless of how well they performed. "They are treated worse, they get lower raises, lower promotion rates, but they are productive," he says.

[Employers] were perfectly happy to take advantage of women participating in the job market but not necessarily to facilitate it.
Joseph McCartin
professor of history at Georgetown

Now, however, he believes the hierarchy could reverse. Companies have seen how productive some workers can be from home, which makes it less justifiable to exclude remote workers from opportunities.

However, a hybrid work model could backfire if those who come in are valued more than those who don't, says Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who studies stereotypes and identity in the workplace.

Historically, she says, offices have fostered "masculine defaults," by which she means that workplaces reward characteristics and behavior associated with men. "Working a long of hours, going out for drinks, a lot of travel — all that is hard if you're doing child care at the same time," she says.

A hybrid work model could make these masculine defaults less valued, but it could also enforce a divide. "If a lot of people are still going into the office and it's still valued to do those kind of longer work days, and travel a lot and go out in the evening, and the workplaces offer this flexibility, but if it's only women who are taking it or people who are otherwise marginalized, it could create this two-tier system," Cheryan says.

"Workers who are going to be more successful are those who come in and don't fit the hybrid model."

Working long hours, going out for drinks, a lot of travel — all that is hard if you're doing child care at the same time.
Sapna Cheryan
psychology professor at the University of Washington

'The big elephant in the room is children and schools'

These concerns are especially resonant for women with children, says Goldin. Some kids are still doing remote learning, and the threat of it looms as the delta variant spreads, so "the big elephant in the room is children and schools."

Many studies that show high productivity levels from remote workers are about call center workers without children. Studies on employees who do not work for call centers and do have children at home have shown that "those workers are not as productive," Goldin says. "There is no question."

Recognition of the double burden doesn't eliminate the burden itself. Many women still have to juggle home-schooling, child care, and work, and there's no solution in sight.

That is an issue the hybrid work model might exacerbate, Cheryan says: "Having the flexible arrangement might be better than not having the flexible arrangement, but if you don't have child care, neither are really good."

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