A young woman wearing a headset and talking while working on a laptop, symbolising remote working.
Image: © Rido/Stock.adobe.com

Could remote working help close the gender pay gap?

8 Mar 2023

Grow Remote’s Joanne Mangan discusses the role remote working could play in narrowing the gender pay gap – but only with the right approach.

Every year on International Women’s Day, it has become something of a tradition for large companies to turn to social media and proclaim their dedication to the cause of gender equality. But recent figures tell us a different story.

According to a report from PwC, 500 Irish organisations that posted gender pay gap reports in December have a mean gender pay gap of 12.6pc. That means women on average are earning the equivalent of one and a half months’ salary less than men every year.

Lip service to gender equality once a year is not good enough – we need to see real action. There isn’t any one silver bullet that will solve the gender pay gap, but the shift to remote working – which came with the pandemic – has given us a unique opportunity to drive some real change.

The World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 136 years to close the global gender gap, a figure that has grown from 100 years as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At this rate, our great-great-grandchildren will be the first generation to live in a world where women earn the same as men. Remote working – when done well – removes location as a barrier to opportunity and could significantly speed up this unacceptably slow pace of change.

‘Far too often remote work is confused with flexible work’

Studies suggest that 80pc of the gender pay gap comes from what is called the motherhood penalty. A study led by an economist at Princeton University found that women experience a sharp decline in their earnings after the birth of their first child, with no comparable drop for men.

The long-term impact on women’s earnings is significant with a drop of more than 20pc over the course of their careers. Similar research from Harvard University found that the gender pay gap is widest for women in their 30s – the years when they are most likely to be having children. There is no similar drop in earnings for women who do not have children.

It’s not news that women’s career advancement suffers when they have children. We throw our hands up and say that’s just the way the world is but so much of this is grounded in social and cultural stereotypes and expectations about women as caregivers and men as breadwinners.

Regardless of the reasons, the knock-on effect is that women remain overrepresented in part-time and lower-paid roles and underrepresented in senior management and leadership roles. So how can remote working change this?

The effect of remote work

It would be wrong to proclaim that remote work is a panacea that will allow working mothers to ‘have it all’. There are too many misconceptions about remote work in the mainstream today that will only hinder women’s progress towards equality in the workplace.

Far too often remote work is confused with flexible work – for example flexible hours, or a hybrid model of three days in the office and two days at home.

In reality, only 33pc of remote jobs offer flexible hours, and hybrid working is not the same as remote working. Another issue is that remote working requests are still being treated on a case-by-case basis, given as a one-off deal for personal circumstances rather than an option that is available to everyone whose job allows it.

Remote work has become inextricably linked with flexibility and personal circumstances, which only leads to its devaluation and the exclusion of those who request it.

Take JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who famously said last year that remote working “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle”. More recently, he has come out with a different attitude, at least when it comes to women. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to help women,” Dimon said during a recent CNBC interview. He went on to say remote work is “fine” if companies can modify to “help women stay at home a bit”.

This is exactly the type of attitude towards remote work that is damaging for gender equality. It’s no good if you’re serious about the ‘hustle’ needed to have a good career, but it’s ‘fine’ for women who need flexibility to juggle caring responsibilities.

JP Morgan recently reported an average gender pay gap of more than 22pc and despite women representing more than 40pc of their employees in Ireland, 75pc of upper management roles are held by men.

There is no chance remote work alone will make this situation better, rather the attitudes at CEO level means women who look for remote work are more likely than ever to be excluded from leadership roles.

A shift in attitude

Just adding remote work to the pot and stirring could take women’s progress towards equality in the workplace backwards rather than forwards. However, if it is done well, there is enormous potential for remote working to speed up the closing of the gender pay gap.

What’s needed is a significant change from today’s office-first and location-based working culture to a virtual-first and location-agnostic culture.

The first and most critical step is to remove location as a barrier to opportunity. This will immediately open up more high-quality job opportunities for women across the country, not just those who live in urban areas.

The second is to remove office presenteeism as the measure of dedication and commitment. The attitude that people who want to work remotely are less invested in their careers has to change, both for women and for men. Fathers need to feel empowered to request remote working without worrying about the implications for their careers.

Senior managers and leaders need to not only reconsider their attitudes towards remote work but lead by example and work remotely themselves. Otherwise the idea that you have to be present in the office every day to show you are serious about your career will never change.

In a virtual-first culture, everyone has equal access to opportunity, regardless of whether they sit at their desks in the office all day or work remotely. Quality of output is what counts, not hours spent at the office.

Changes beyond the workplace

We need to see significant changes outside of the workplace too. Affordable childcare is an absolute must for parents in Ireland, otherwise too many women will continue to be forced to give up their jobs as it doesn’t make sense financially for them to keep working just so they can pay the creche fees.

We also need to remember that not every job can be a remote job. Women are heavily concentrated in lower paying professions that can never be done remotely, in health, education and caring professions.

Sectors like technology and engineering, where remote work is much more common, are dominated by men. This gender segregation needs to be addressed, with measures needed to increase female representation in higher paid male-dominated industries, while in parallel we need to question why traditional female-dominated industries like nursing and childcare continue to have lower value.

‘We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that it will be different in 136 years’ time’

The pandemic led to a seismic shift in our attitudes towards work, but history tells us that these events can easily exacerbate pre-existing inequalities if the underlying norms and practices remain the same. During the global crisis that was World War II women entered the workforce in huge numbers, which ultimately led to the normalisation of women working outside the home within a few decades.

However, the world of work was designed for a time when women stayed at home to take care of children so that men could go to work. This world did not change when women entered the workforce in numbers during and after the war, it is still the system we operate under today. It is the reason why it is so difficult to achieve gender equality.

Remote work in and of itself will not solve the problem, but it is a critical element of the systemic change that needs to happen. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that it will be different in 136 years’ time. We need to make these changes now.

By Joanne Mangan

Joanne Mangan is the remote transformation manager at Grow Remote, a social enterprise on a mission to make remote local.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading