A briefing paper prepared by Wen Fan, Boston University, and Richard J. Petts, Ball State University, for the Council on Contemporary Families symposium The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality (PDF).
[Acknowledgement: The authors greatly appreciate Jennifer Glass and Jerry Jacobs for their generous feedback on a previous version of the briefing paper.]
The COVID-19 pandemic transformed where paid work is done, leading millions to become remote workers overnight. Large numbers (40% of full-time employees) continue to work remotely three years following the pandemic onset, and workers today highly value flexible work options. Yet, access to, and use of, fully remote or hybrid (i.e., partially remote) work (remote work for short hereafter) remains uneven. Notably, men are more likely to say they can work from home, but of those who can work remotely, women work from home more than men. Gender differences in perceptions and experiences of remote work are also complex, as these forms of flexible work are associated with stigmas for men and discussed as both “a blessing and a curse” for women. These gender differences raise important questions about the consequences of remote work for gender equality; does remote work promote gender equality or in fact widen the long-existing gender gap in paid and unpaid labor?
Two new research projects provide insight into the implications of pandemic-induced remote work for gender equality. One study, the Study on U.S. Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC), is a longitudinal survey of partnered U.S. parents residing with a biological child administered from April 2020 to October 2022. Another study, the Remote Work Dynamics Panel Study, is a four-wave, nationally representative survey of U.S. workers who spent at least some time working from home since the onset of the pandemic (October 2020 to April 2022). Collectively, these two projects show that remote work fosters gender equality in some dimensions but perpetuates gender inequalities in other domains.
How Remote Work Enhances Gender Equality
New evidence from these projects highlights two ways in which increased access to remote work might promote gender equality. First, remote work allows women, especially less educated women, to work in a place they prefer. Working from home has been historically popular among women as it enables them to maintain their attachment to the paid labor force while also managing housework and childcare. Greater access to remote work since the pandemic thus disproportionately helps women (more than it does for men) to align where they work with their preferences. When women wanted to work from home but had to go back to the office because of employer mandates, evidence shows that they tended to leave the labor force, at least in the short term. And this is especially the case for women without a college degree, who have fewer options than men or more educated women in locating a new job with remote options.
Second, among heterosexual partnered parents, remote work provides opportunities for fathers to share domestic labor, which also strengthens mothers’ labor force attachment. When partnered fathers worked from home more frequently during the pandemic, partnered mothers performed smaller shares of housework and childcare; mothers were additionally more likely to be employed and worked more hours in paid labor, thereby reducing the well-known gender gap in both paid and unpaid labor. The pattern is even more pronounced when fathers worked exclusively from home. Working from home likely exposes fathers to domestic labor and allows them to have more time to perform these tasks, which, in turn, enables their partners to spend more hours in paid labor.
How Remote Work Hinders Gender Equality
Despite the potential for remote work to promote gender equality, results from these projects also illustrate ways in which remote work widened some gender gaps in both domestic and paid labor during the pandemic. In the initial transition into remote work, results show a deeply gendered process with women more likely than men to experience change—either a major decrease or a major increase—in work hours. Men had more control over the hours they work, making a deliberate decision to work the same hours and being able to maintain high productivity due to fewer interruptions when working from home. In contrast, findings based on partnered parents show that mothers with job flexibility tended to scale back their work hours to accommodate housework and childcare duties, suggesting that enduring gender norms may have led mothers to prioritize the home front during the pandemic. Another strategy some mothers adopted to deal with domestic disruptions in the pandemic was to work longer hours, particularly non-conventional hours such as when children were in bed.
Another way in which remote work exacerbated gender inequality is that remote work helps improve the well-being of minoritized men more than women. Gender equality and racial equality are intricately linked. Given explicit and implicit racial bias, discrimination, and microaggressions in office environments, it has long been argued that remote work may contribute to the well-being of minoritized workers more than for white workers. New evidence shows that remote work promotes well-being generally, but across all gender/racial groups, men of color benefit the most from remote work. The generally lower occupational status of women of color may have limited the extent to which they emotionally and psychologically benefit from remote work.
Lessons from the Pandemic: The Future of Remote Work and Gender Equality
How then do we make sense of the mixed findings about the implications of increased access to remote work for gender equality? We believe that emerging evidence offers important lessons about the ways in which remote work can be used to promote greater gender equality in the U.S. beyond the pandemic. While there may not be a perfect one-size-fits-all remote work policy, we believe policies can be flexible enough to work for a wide range of companies and workers.
- For jobs that allow working from home, companies should provide workers equal access to remote work regardless of their gender. To avoid remote work being seen as just a policy for women, men should be incentivized to work remotely. Doing so may minimize stigmas associated with remote work while also promoting greater gender equality in domestic labor. This may also allow families to be more flexible, such as by alternating which partner works from home and which works in the office on any given day.
- There should be clear organizational guidelines and expectations for the day-to-day implementations of remote work. Given that remote work may in fact intensify job demands and further blur work–life boundaries, a consequence disproportionately borne by women, companies and organizations need to provide more job autonomy, set up clear expectations for remote workers, and focus on outcomes instead of office time as the metric for evaluation or promotion.
- While remote work can potentially help workers better manage work and family responsibilities, it is not a complete solution as these new findings show. Increased access to good, affordable childcare in conjunction with better, more equitable remote work policies, would increase the likelihood that both men and women maximize the benefits of remote work and decrease the likelihood of exacerbating gender gaps in domestic labor by reducing childcare burdens on mothers in particular.
- Better remote work policies are needed for women of color and less educated women. These workers are less likely to have access to remote work, despite desiring it more than men, and they tend to work in environments with high demands, low control, and low support—factors that mitigate the benefits of remote work. Organizational and public policies that create a more equitable workforce and promote more equitable working-from-home experiences—for example, IT expense reimbursement policies or “work-from-home pledges” that specify company norms around remote work—are essential for improving well-being among disadvantaged women workers.
About the Authors
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. His research focuses on the intersection of family, work, gender, and policy, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Council on Contemporary Families. You can learn more about his research by visiting his website (www.richardpetts.com), following him on X (@pettsric), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).