On March 9th, I flew from Baltimore to Denver to facilitate a conversation on gender equity in technology. We covered interesting and complicated ground. There was a sense of enthusiasm that women were increasingly bringing their “whole selves” to work and able to contribute without the self-censoring that characterized earlier career trajectories, mine included. And there was a sense of optimism that women’s voices were beginning to permeate company decision-making and culture-building, though far from pervasive and certainly not at scale.
Sadly, the world has changed so significantly since then that I can barely comprehend it. Our time of COVID-19 containment has not advanced the cause or dialogue of gender equality in the workplace in any meaningful way. Rather than seeing a path that builds upon positive momentum and trends, the road ahead looks even more imposing.
Not going back to where we started
One of the most unspoken and insidious dimensions of workplace culture has always been the inequality and expectations of people based upon their gender. Before COVID-19, women were already carrying the disproportionate share of housework and childcare, on top of putting in the work hours and taking on assignments with the visibility that would lead to career advancement and promotions.
The ability to work from home has often been leveraged as a reward, one not offered to employees across the board. But, when working from home also includes child-rearing and home schooling and meal preparation and household management, working parents — and let’s face it, that means working mothers in most cases — confront a nearly unbearable burden. Mentally, the lines between work and home lives have always been blurred for working mothers. Now, they are physically blurred as well.
The optimist in me believes that because men have a front-row seat and no place to hide, the promise of greater balance might become reality during this period of ubiquitous work-from-home. That perhaps the pandemic might usher in an era of “home equality” that flows into “workplace equality,” where our expectations of people are not delineated according to their gender.
But I also fear the unintended consequences. While work-from-anywhere could expand opportunities, it might also create compensation based not upon skills and experience, but rather upon work-from-home location. Historically people who have worked from home have realized fewer raises and promotions, demonstrating that out-of-sight out-of-mind is a real risk. Hard-won efforts to marginally close the compensation chasm between men and women are likely to result in a second-wave gender wage gap.
Recent video check-ins with women across my network have revealed an alarming trend of work-from-home performance anxiety, where the real or perceived pressure for constant availability blurs those increasingly permeable borders. Even if unfounded, these feelings are corrosive and not sustainable.
New paths forward
Gender equity isn’t a tech sector issue, nor, frankly, is it a women’s issue. And it’s not going to be solved by women alone.
I wonder how the effect of COVID’s digital acceleration will impact company cultures, as well as households. Will the ability to work from anywhere at any time serve families as well as gender equity? Or will the precipitous balance become even more difficult to manage? Will employers institute “people policies” that are as valid and constructive for men as they are for women?
Achieving gender parity in the workplace is an ongoing journey, and will depend upon many to be allies. Solving the challenges in our world today — social, economic, political, educational, environmental — requires that full participation be unleashed. Even as women’s voices become increasingly heard and heeded, it takes both intention and action to build the healthy, diverse and sustainable organizations that we all desire.