Opinion | Remote Work Doesn’t Have to Be the ‘Mommy Track’

By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

As Covid case rates drop precipitously around much of the country, some corporate executives and the Biden administration appear to be pushing toward a return to the office. While most Americans can’t work remotely in the first place (about 60 percent, according to Pew Research), those who say they’re happiest working from home are women and Black Americans, according to a recent Harris Poll survey.

The way return-to-office preferences have been interpreted by some is unfortunately fatalistic for many parents, because there’s an assumption that lingers, even in a post-2020 world, that at the office, face time is king. The less face time you have, the old argument goes, the less opportunity you’ll have to advance, especially if you’re part of a historically marginalized group. Some fear that as more people return to the office, mothers, in particular, may be penalized, because remote and flexible work arrangements will become associated with them, creating a lower tier of workers: “You are mommy tracked to the billionth degree,” as the workplace expert Brigid Schulte put it to Politico.

Sample headlines and quotes from news organizations are a litany of pessimistic concern: “Parents Want to Work From Home for Good. But for Moms, the Effects Could Be Dire,” one headline from The Lily cautioned. “Why I Worry Remote Schedules Could Mean Fewer Women in the Office,” read the headline of a Washington Post opinion article. “A hybrid workplace has the potential to become an inequitable workplace, as in-office workers have more contact with managers and executives — while those who stay home fall out of sight and out of mind,” wrote Erica Pandey for Axios.

I find this expression of, apparently, passive concern strange on a number of levels. First, it pretends that in-person workplace socializing was ever equitable for women and people of color, when research has shown that it wasn’t. A 2021 working paper, “The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap,” by the economists Zoë Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, who analyzed workplace data from 2015 to 2018 at a large commercial bank in Asia, cited previous research finding that “81 percent of women say that they feel excluded from relationship building at work, and many also feel excluded from after-work-hours socializing.”

Cullen and Perez-Truglia found that “the advantages that come from socializing with the manager contribute significantly to the gender gap.” They also found that, compared to men, there was a 31 percent pay gap for mothers who ever take maternity leave.

It should be common sense that it has never been easy for people with caregiving responsibilities to regularly extend their workday for socializing. When work schedules are unpredictable, single parents, especially, shoulder the most difficult burden.

And those hand-wringing headlines almost seem to ignore the events of the past two years — as if we didn’t just prove, in a massive, unasked-for experiment, that workers can be quite productive and content working from home and managers are capable of adjusting workflows and processes to make a remote or hybrid “office” functional. There will always be institutional resistance to change, said Jennifer Glass, a University of Texas professor who does research on telecommuting. “You get managers who are inconvenienced by rethinking, because they’re already overworked. Even if it would make things more productive, there’s always this learning curve,” she said. Glass also noted that before the pandemic, many office workers worked from home all the time; they just did it at night and on weekends, so it didn’t get classified that way.

But we don’t have to remain calcified in old ways of managing just because that’s the way things have always been done. “We get to rebuild back in a better way,” said Minda Harts, a workplace and equity consultant. If we return to the old way of building office culture, which prioritized after-work socializing and random coffee breaks in the office, “it’s going to shut a lot of people out and be bad for those businesses,” she said. Harts has spoken with Black workers, in particular, over the past few years, and, she said, many told her that when they worked remotely was the first time they felt a sense of belonging at their companies.

So how might managers make sure that employees in the office, at home and with caregiving responsibilities are treated more evenly? It doesn’t have to require a ton of effort. I’ve worked on more than one team with employees across the country while managers were concentrated at the main office. I’ve learned that if managers can be intentional about how much one-on-one time they give to each of their reports, it can go a long way. For example, they can set up recurring 15- or 30-minute check-ins with all their reports and perhaps offer fully remote employees additional time slots to make up for the lack of in-person face time.

Reshma Saujani, the author of the forthcoming “Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think),” told me that companies should track promotion rates and make sure that employees who do hybrid and remote work aren’t penalized for it.

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