teleworking mom next to sleeping child and dog

Telework reduces workplace gender gap

New research finds that women who could switch to telework did so more than men during the pandemic, reducing gender inequality in unemployment rates.

Like many disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic was more challenging for women than men. Between February and December of 2020, women lost 5.4 million payroll jobs, nearly 1 million more than men. Some people even started calling the coronavirus downturn a "she-cession" instead of a recession.

This was partly due to the type of jobs lost, such as retail and restaurant work, industries where women outnumber men. Teleworking played a part in this disparity, too. As of September 2020, figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed that fewer women had jobs that allowed them to telecommute: 22% of women workers compared with 28% of male workers.

Pei-Yu Chen, Red Avenue Foundation Professor and Chair of the Department of Information Systems, decided to see if teleworking opportunities can help close workplace gender disparities. Her analysis found that women who could do so switched to telework more than men during the pandemic, either when supported by the workplace or by switching to a teleworkable job. This move reduced gender inequality in unemployment rates.

The homestretch

Even without a disaster, full-time employed women have been found to shoulder more domestic responsibilities than full-time employed males. The COVID-19 pandemic made it even worse: According to a BBC report, women spend 15 more hours a week on unpaid domestic chores than men. This further contributed to job outcome inequality because employers were more likely to lay off women workers due to the perception that they would spend less time on work.

"I remember conversations with male colleagues who found their productivity increased because they didn't need to drive kids to school or activities," she recalls of those early pandemic days. As the mom of two active boys who suddenly were home all day, Chen can't say the same. "I had to prepare three meals. When I was in a meeting, they played with our new dog instead of taking their classes. During the meeting break, I would have to run after them. I was completely stressed out," she says.

Suddenly, the workday was different. "Whenever a work condition changes, or a person's needs change, it leads to person (P)-work environment (E) discorrepondence, and adjustment is needed to maintain P-E fit," Chen notes. That's the gist of the "theory of workplace adjustment," one of Chen's theoretical lenses in viewing COVID-19's impact on inequality. Telework is one such adjustment, and employed women need it more than their male counterparts because the more significant increase in domestic demands impinges more on women workers’ paid work, leading to a higher level of P-E discorrespondence.

Chen and the team found workers with comparable jobs, incomes, education, and experience to measure how this theory played out between the genders. They also looked for roles that don't have a lot of gender-based occupational segregation, such as mechanic and construction worker, which generally attract men, or clerical assistant and nurse, two roles with more women working in them. The team used data from the current population survey (CPS) conducted by the BLS and Census Bureau between January 2019 and December 2020, which shows the height of the pandemic's impact.

There shouldn't be any unemployment gap between a woman and a man if they are in the same occupations, doing the same work, and have the same characteristics. The only difference is gender. Why did women have a higher unemployment rate? Isn't that inequality if everything else is equal but the outcome is different?

Pei-yu Chen, Red Avenue Foundation Professor and Chair of the Department of Information Systems

Chen felt fortunate to have the option to do her work via telework, allowing her to support a different workday despite all the challenges. Chen's study found that women were more likely to switch to telework and telework as a work adjustment for women was able to close the gender inequality gap in unemployment rates by 57%, even though there remained 43% unexplained inequality.

"There are strong implications for workplaces as well as policy implications," she says, and she believes these implications go beyond the added stress of a pandemic. "Women go through different life stages, and sometimes we need higher flexibility. For example, sometimes you get a call from school that your kid is sick, so you work from home that day." She says organizations that can provide flexibility with telework should. "That would help close unreasonable inequality."

The digital divide

Chen's work also examined whether digital infrastructure affected the adoption of teleworking and unemployment during the pandemic. That rate did not vary based on the digital infrastructure available to workers.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, infrastructure and home computer coverage statistically correlated to lower unemployment for those who could adjust to the pandemic with telework. "If your internet is unstable and you try to do telework, there's no way you can do that work well," Chen says. "If you don't have good internet or telecommunications infrastructure access, you're still likely to get laid off."

She hopes policymakers will support workers' needs with infrastructure investments and enhance digital literacy so more women and minority workers can take on telework opportunities. Chen also advises companies to have telework options available when possible and "provide more guidance for workers on how to handle telework efficiently."

Finally, her study indicates that policymakers could "provide more training on information technology skills so workers can better prepare themselves to find teleworkable jobs," Chen says. "Those computing skills are essential to close the inequality gap."

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