Is Remote Work the Answer to Women’s Prayers, or a New ‘Mommy Track’?

In 1989, the legal scholar Joan C. Williams published a theory for why professional women were “opting out” of their careers.

Professional jobs, she wrote, expected that employees would be available at all times — to travel often, work late and show up regardless of whether a child was sick at home or just born. They were designed, in other words, for men married to homemakers.

“Employers are taught they can expect this,” Ms. Williams wrote. But mothers, who are also expected to meet caretaking ideals, “cannot fulfill this career profile even with most types of day care.”

To level the playing field and get the most out of the work force, she argued, beliefs about what makes a good worker needed to be redefined.

For 30 years, Ms. Williams watched as practical reasons that work needed to be done in the office dwindled. Files left cabinets and phones became mobile, but the model of an “ideal worker” she’d laid out in 1989 remained the same. While many companies technically offered flexible options, using them was seen as a sign of being less dedicated.

“It was so frustrating that I left the work-family field,” said Ms. Williams, who is a professor at the University of California Law San Francisco.

And then, the pandemic hit. Shutdown orders forced companies to experiment with remote work, and it stuck around. Ms. Williams regained hope. “Now the ideal worker, in many, many professional jobs is seen as someone who only shows up to work” — in person — “part time,” she said.

Mothers, not exclusively, but in particular, may have already gained a great deal from this shift. Some economists have suggested remote work factored into the all-time high in labor force participation rate among women of prime working age. The jump for mothers of young children has been particularly high, and among those who have a bachelor’s degree, it’s even higher.

After all, even in marriages where husbands and wives earn about the same amount, women still take on more housework and caregiving responsibilities. And when work and caregiving conflict, women are more likely to take a step back. Work by Claudia Goldin — who won a Nobel Prize in economics in October — has shown that occupations like finance and law pay a premium for long, inflexible hours, which contributes to the gender pay gap.

Now, many of those demanding jobs are a little more flexible. Business travel is down, and all sorts of workers are likely to be absent from the office at 6 p.m., not just parents who have to pick up the children — which many fathers would like to do, too.

Most post-pandemic debate around remote work has focused on whether it’s here to stay. Some version of it seems likely: About 70 percent of workers who can do their jobs off-site still work remotely either all or some days. Job satisfaction is at the highest it’s been in the 36 years the Conference Board has tracked the metric, and it’s highest among workers who do some work remotely.

But if old attitudes about more flexible work resurge — outspoken executives have recently described it as “lazy,” not for leaders and a perk for those who don’t “work as hard”— then it may not matter if hybrid options are widespread. In the end, Ms. Williams said, they may “just be strengthening the invisible escalator for white men.”

In the grand economic picture, keeping mothers in the work force is a smart idea. “An economy with a high labor supply of women is an economy that is easier to hire in, and that’s good for all businesses,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. This is especially true for highly skilled jobs, because women hold the majority of college degrees.

For executives who are not referencing the grand economic picture, there is still incentive to retain mothers — which is why some companies offer expanded maternity benefits despite no requirement to do so. “They realized that it was cheaper than losing an employee and having to recruit a replacement,” Ms. Stevenson said.

In experiments, mothers, fathers and people without caregiving responsibilities have been less likely to leave their job and reported better work-life balance when they had more control over where and when they work. (Studies conflict on whether working from home or the office is more productive, but most experts agree it depends on the task.)

But “the difference is who really needs the flexibility in order to not quit their job,” said Lauren Bauer, a Brookings Institution fellow who co-wrote an analysis of the historically high work force participation by mothers of young children.

This boost in women’s employment does not — as employers may fear — appear to be a side effect of mothers trying to simultaneously do their jobs and actively care for young children. Only about 6 percent of mothers of young children who telework at least once a week report having no child care, according to a Brookings Institution analysis by Ms. Bauer and Molly Kinder based on 2023 data from the Census Household Pulse Survey.

Some working mothers, like Daphne Alsiyao, who works at an early childhood education nonprofit organization, say remote work allows them to shift schedules so they can cover child care gaps.

Ms. Alsiyao usually works from home until 3:30, when she collects her three children. She watches them until bedtime, then logs into her computer to finish her work. What would she do if she couldn’t arrange work this way? “I really don’t know,” she said.

After a recent move, she’d put her youngest child on a waiting list for more than five day care centers, but never found a spot. (In March, she spoke about her struggle to find child care at the North Carolina General Assembly.)

“What really takes women out of paid employment is the need to be available or on call,” said Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the value of unpaid care work. An 11-year-old who is home sick or early from school may not need direct care, but can’t necessarily be left in the house alone. “Remote work allows parents actually, I think, to be more productive because they can jointly supervise their kids and get good work done,” she said.

Ms. Goldin argues that remote work may also make it easier for mothers to stay in demanding jobs. “Flexibility always existed — it came with a price,” she said. “You could always find a job that was part time. ”

Women are not working from home vastly more often than men, according to a survey by economists at Stanford, the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and the University of Chicago. And none of this — the incentives for employers to keep some type of flexible work arrangements, or the potential of those arrangements to create a more even playing field — would work nearly as well if there were a bigger gap.

“It’s not just that there’s more telework — it’s that telework is now deemed as something that is OK, it’s not just helping women,” Ms. Bauer said.

Leaving the office on time to pick up the children or saving commute time by working a couple of days from home was possible in many jobs before the pandemic, but came with what the academic literature calls “flexibility stigma.” Many women I talked with for this story called it “guilt.” People who took advantage of workplace flexibility were seen as less serious workers, and it hurt their careers.

Kellie Samson, a mother of two who works in communications at a private university and commutes just one day a week, said that after the pandemic, “People realize what we knew all along, which is that I can get the work done, just maybe not in the traditional sense.”

But while some workers feel the acceptability of doing at least part of their jobs remotely has shifted, managers have spent decades using office attendance as a proxy for productivity. It’s a difficult habit to kick, especially when it requires thinking differently about how to organize and evaluate work. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal,” David Solomon, the Goldman Sachs chief executive, said about remote work at a conference in 2021, adding, “It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.”

It doesn’t help, Ms. Williams said, that many top executives fit the old ideal: They are married to homemakers and haven’t taken on caregiving responsibilities. “They literally do not see this problem because it’s so far outside of their experience,” she said.

So far, post-pandemic remote work has only existed in a tight labor market. When that changes, going to the office may be viewed as more important.

Seeing colleagues face to face tends to give workers an advantage, a pitfall known as “proximity bias.” And a recent study from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Virginia and Harvard found that workers at a Fortune 500 software company received more mentorship when they sat next to their colleagues. The hit to mentorship from working remotely was more acute for women.

Before the pandemic, women were more likely to choose flexible work, even when it came at a cost to their careers. People of color say they prefer to work from home at higher rates than their white counterparts. If spending more time in the office means being branded a hustler or getting better assignments, most experts make the same guess about who will show up.

“You could, in principle, use the flexibility to make things a lot more gender equal,” said Matthias Doepke, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In a 2020 paper, he and three co-authors showed that men who could work remotely, and were married to women who could not, did about 50 percent more child care than men who could not work remotely. “It’s also possible that in the end, it’s women who make use of flexibility” he said.

In that case, working remotely full-time, or working more days from home than others in a hybrid workplace, could become an updated version of the mommy track.

“Hybrid workplaces will make it easier for women to remain in the labor force but harder for women to advance,” Ms. Williams said.

Does that leave women better or worse off overall? “It could lead to a female enclave who work at home more than most men,” Ms. Goldin said. “But the question is whether that is worse than having the same women be part-time.” That remote workers could be seen as less serious, she said, “does not mean that on net it is not an improvement.”

There are limits to what remote work can do on its own. Most jobs can’t be done remotely. Only about 25 percent of private industry employees have access to any paid family leave, and about half of Americans live in a “child care desert” where supply does not meet demand, according to the Center for American Progress.

What the pandemic did, by accident, was make it more acceptable in some industries to have work move slightly more fluidly around life. It’s too soon to know what that’s worth.

“I don’t think that at the end of the day, we’re going to say, ‘Oh, isn’t this wonderful? We were dead and then reborn with a world of work that’s more like the world that we have always wanted,’” Ms. Goldin said.

“We haven’t gone through that, but we’ve gone through something that is putting us closer.”

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