Why Working Remotely Backfires for Mothers

4 minute read

As we come up on nearly five months of remote working, how are employees faring? There have been many benefits of remote working reported, including greater flexibility, engagement, and even increased productivity. Given these benefits, some companies, like Shopify and Facebook, are moving to permanently offer remote working as an option, and others, like Google, are extending it for another year. However, like other work arrangements, working remotely does not work for everyone.

The Wall Street Journal reported that although in the beginning there was an immediate boost of productivity experienced by companies and workers basking in the novelty and long-desired flexibility work-from-home allows, as the experiment stretches on, some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated.” In addition, we are learning that not all experience work-from-home the same.

Various personality differences can make people more suited towards working remotely, and there are also different life circumstances that have caused the experience to be more challenging. Unfortunately, it seems that working mothers, in particular, are part of the group most negatively impacted. 

Prior to the pandemic, working mothers have always faced a challenge in balancing work and life, given that we know they historically, typically shoulder a bigger burden of domestic responsibilities. Now, with the added strain of uncertainty, many working mothers are experiencing growing shame. Shame involves the feeling of being unable to meet expectations, whether cultural, societal, or personal. “Compared to stay-at-home moms, many working mothers have historically struggled to reconcile how they fail to conform to either parenting standards or organizational expectations.”  The pandemic has exacerbated this for many - now physically closer and present to their children more than at any other time in their lives, mothers may face the challenge of having to consciously put their work before home-life. This is not an easy task when one might have young children at home that don’t understand the situation.

Understandably, this is something many children are not used to seeing in their homes as before, the context of in-office working doesn’t necessarily allow mothers to have breakfast with their kids at home before they are off to day-care, or fold laundry at lunch; work was largely out of the home, and thus out-of-sight for children. Although not without its challenges, retreating to an office location allowed working mothers to put up barriers and boundaries on their two lives and accompanying responsibilities.

While many recognize there are benefits to the flexibility working from home brings, accommodating domestic or parental activities may ultimately mean mothers work less during the day (and are either challenged to make it up on nights or weekends, or ultimately not able to keep up with other colleagues that don’t have children at home). A new survey of 60,000 dual-earner households found that in “April, mothers’ work hours fell four to five times more than fathers’ hours did...The biggest impact on mothers’ ability to work came if they had young children who needed a lot of caregiving.” Even in households where both parents were able to work from home, mothers ended up working reduced hours. The researchers suggest that there may be a number of reasons why this is happening, including that “women comprise a majority of primary caregivers and workers in the service industry, two areas that have been most impacted by COVID-19.” Regardless of the main causes, this difference can snowball into a greater level of inequality later. For example, given that remote working can already make workers less visible, the career trajectory of mothers can be disproportionately disrupted.

It’s a bit of a no-win situation. Like the pandemic itself, it is a complex problem and there are no easy answers, as there is no doubt working mothers are feeling enhanced cultural expectations about “what they should be doing” whether as mothers or as employees. There is neither a formal definition of what the “ideals” are nor a semblance of established values or norms for working mothers to display. Virtually any move can be deemed inconsistent or undesirable.”

Harvard Business Review offers a few guidelines to support greater understanding of the challenges working mothers face:

1. Be empathetic and gain insight on impacts. Leaders should lead with empathy and be aware of when social norms may impact perceptions and expectations of remote working.

2. Avoid creating “two-tiers” of employees. As we transition back into the office, there may be groups of people who will remain working from home while others may head back to the office. Ensure that there is equal access to opportunities and an equal amount of flexibility for those at home and in the office. 

3. Focus performance evaluations on outcomes. As we continue navigating through the uncertainty of this pandemic, ensure that your performance evaluation processes focus on objective outputs rather than on the specific hours logged or how they got there.

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.

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