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Is the ‘Zoom ceiling’ the new glass ceiling? Experts worry remote work will hold women back

Margaret Bailey, pictured with her son, works hybrid, spending some time at home and some time in the office.
Source: Margaret Bailey

The ability to work remotely has been a lifeline for Margaret Bailey during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bailey, the mother of two young children, splits her time between home and the office as vice president at St. Louis-based CannonDesign.

"I love working from home," she said.

Bailey praises her company for its flexibility and calls herself "incredibly fortunate." Yet she's worried about working in a hybrid capacity when many others eventually return to the office full-time.

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"It's that fear of — I also want to make sure that I'm meeting people across the company and continuing to have exposure and visibility," said Bailey, 36, a network leader with the local chapter of Lean In.

There is certainly a bias favoring those who are in the office compared to those who are not, which can keep remote workers from getting promotions and leadership positions, said Elora Voyles, people scientist at human resources software company Tinypulse.

She has coined it the "Zoom ceiling" and believes it has become the new glass ceiling.

It mostly affects women, people of color and those with disabilities, since they are more likely to opt for remote work, Voyles said. One survey by career website FlexJobs found that 68% of women preferred to work remotely post-pandemic, compared to 57% of men. Additionally, 80% of women ranked it as a top job benefit, while only 69% of men said the same.

Here's how remote work could impact your potential for a bonus
Here's how remote work could impact your potential for a bonus

"We found that it kind of makes it so managers think, 'out of sight out of mind,'" she said. "They forget about them, they don't assess their performance or see their accomplishments in the same way that they do in-person."

Research has shown remote employees face greater challenges than those who work in-person, including less opportunity for promotion. For instance, the U.K. government found that those who worked from home were less than half as likely to get promoted than all other employees between 2012 and 2017. They were also 38% less likely on average to receive a bonus.

Women are burned out

MoMo Productions | DigitalVision | Getty Images

One big reason women want to work remotely is because they take on a majority of the household duties, advocates argue.

Mothers were 1.5 time more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework in 2020, equivalent to 20 hours a week, the 2020 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and found.

Meanwhile, 42% of women reported being burned out often or almost always in 2021, up 10% from 2020, according to the 2021 Women in the Workplace report. In comparison, 35% of men said the same.

"This is really an alarm bell that [organizations] need to continue to really focus on women, and make sure they're getting the support they need," said CEO Rachel Thomas.

What companies can do

Experts aren't suggesting a call back into the office full-time for everyone. In fact, remote work has become a tool to attract and retain employees during the Great Resignation. About 70% of employers plan to adopt a hybrid model post-pandemic, a May survey of 600 employers by Mercer found.

"I worry about what seems like great fixes on the surface, people aren't thinking all the way through," said Sian Beilock, CEO of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist.

"We have to be really deliberate about the policies we're creating, if we not only hope to gain on some of the gender inequalities that were exacerbated during the pandemic, but actually help close the gap."

We found that it kind of makes it so managers think, 'out of sight out of mind.'
Elora Voyles
people scientist at Tinypulse

Tinypulse's Voyles has five suggestions for companies and managers, including formalizing remote work policies that outline clear expectations and setting up frequent one-on-one meetings between remote workers and managers, since there won't be the opportunity for spontaneous discussions.

When it comes to meetings, those conducting them should make sure remote workers have an equal chance to contribute or hold all meetings virtually on hybrid teams, she said.

To help curb any bias towards remote workers, inject flexibility into work schedules for in-person employees so there is no perception of unfairness, she said. Lastly, standardize performance evaluation methods so performance and work contributions are measured as objectively as possible.

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To be sure, women tend to get less credit for accomplishments and have to work harder to get recognized even in the office, LeanIn's Thomas said.

"Then think about what that looks like when they're working virtually," she said.

"Organizations really need to double down on making sure that they're very focused on results, what's getting done, are goals getting met, not how the work is getting done, and not where the work is getting done."

For Bailey, it's also important to still feel connected with her co-workers despite the distance.

"Just really finding those places, whether it's a big kind of social forum or small intimate circles ... those are the kind of ways to really connect that I think companies need to take advantage of," she said.

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