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Research: How Remote Work Impacts Women at Different Stages of Their Careers

Source : Harvard Business Review - Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington, and Amanda Pallais

Since the pandemic began, work from home (WFH) has at times been pitched as a means of supporting women in the workplace. This argument often focuses on WFH’s potential to help women juggle the demands of their jobs with the demands of their families. However, WFH’s impact on women’s professional development may vary over their careers. In our research, we explored how WFH impacts young women as they try to get a foothold in their careers and how it affects the often-invisible mentorship work done by more senior women.

We investigated WFH’s impact on women’s careers in the context of 1,055 software engineers at a Fortune 500 company. At this firm, some engineers worked in the same building as all of their teammates before the Covid-19 pandemic, while other teams were split across buildings that were a few blocks apart. Before the offices closed, teams that sat together had frequent in-person interaction. By contrast, teams that were split across buildings functioned more like remote teams, by, for example, having their daily meetings online. Once the pandemic prompted office closures, all employees worked at a distance from their teammates.

To evaluate WFH’s impact on women’s professional development across seniority levels, we first assessed whether, when the offices were open, engineers who were distant from some of their colleagues had different experiences than engineers on collocated teams. We then evaluated whether these differences disappeared once the offices closed, and engineers who had sat near their teammates lost the proximity to coworkers that they had previously enjoyed.

Mentorship Suffers with WFH

We found that sitting near teammates facilitated mentorship. We measured mentorship through online peer review comments aimed at improving engineers’ software programs. When the offices were open, female engineers sitting near their colleagues received 40% more comments on their code than did women on multi-building teams. In part, this is because female engineers asked more online follow-up questions when they sat near their colleagues, leading to more in-depth conversations about their code. Additionally, female engineers received feedback from a greater number of distinct people when they interacted in person, suggesting that they received more diverse perspectives on their work. Interestingly, the additional feedback came from both male and female colleagues, so it is not merely the case of female engineers experiencing more “mansplaining” when working in person, nor the case of female engineers solely being taken under the wing of other women when face-to-face.

The dynamics are directionally similar, but more muted, for male engineers. For male engineers, the gap in feedback between same-building and multi-building engineers was only 18% when the offices were open. This gap, which is less than half that of female engineers, also disappears when the offices close. It appears that male engineers’ willingness to ask for clarification is less sensitive to proximity.

Importantly, we found no difference in the nature of the comments received by male and female engineers. Overall, these comments were generally helpful and actionable — and were equally so for male and female engineers.

The benefits of proximity were particularly substantial for women who are new to the company. Workers who were newer to the firm and generally had the most to learn received more mentorship, and their mentorship was more sensitive to proximity. Specifically, in our study, junior female engineers received about 51% more feedback if they were on a one-building team — whereas senior engineers received similar amounts of feedback regardless of if they were on a one-building team where they could sit near teammates or a multi-building team where they met remotely.

Invisible Work Is Reduced with WFH

While junior female engineers particularly seemed to benefit from proximity, senior female engineers seemed to be particularly taxed by proximity. Senior female engineers sitting near their teammates gave 28% more comments than those on distributed teams. Because they spent more time giving feedback, senior women also had reduced output when sitting near teammates. Senior female engineers sitting near their teammates produced less than half the programs per month than those on distributed teams.

Proximity had a smaller impact on senior male engineers. Senior male engineers provided just a little more feedback when working in person than they did remotely. Consequently, senior male engineers’ output only took about half as much of a hit as did senior female engineers’ output.

Training other colleagues is often invisible work — hard to identify and therefore hard to reward. We found that senior women who sat near their teammates received fewer pay raises compared to their peers who WFH — as we would expect if they are investing in their colleagues’ growth at the expense of their own output.

The Effects Beyond Engineering

There are several reasons to think that the dynamic we documented among software engineers might be exaggerated in other settings.

First, software engineering is conducive to providing remote mentorship. Digital feedback on code is deeply ingrained institutionally — and was common practice before the pandemic. If the only means of helping colleagues grow occur in-person, the cost of working remotely for junior workers would likely be larger. Conversely, the burden of providing this training in-person — which often falls on senior women — would be more potent as well.

Second, the software engineers we studied are individual contributors. If we were studying collaborative teams, where output and learning both benefit from face-to-face interactions, then the costs of giving less feedback to juniors when working remotely and the cost to senior managers of providing this training might also be larger.

Importantly, only 16% of the engineers in our study are parents. It is possible the decrease in feedback that we observed when workers did not sit near one another would be even larger if parents need to juggle work and childcare. This would make the mentorship costs of remote work even more extreme. If, however, workers more effectively balance parenthood and childcare when working remotely — perhaps because their companies provide the resources and flexibility to do so — the effects we observe would be more muted among parents.

What Do We Do?

Our research suggests that whether or not remote work is more costly or more beneficial for women likely depends on one’s career stage. For junior workers, working remotely can impair on-the-job training. For senior workers, working remotely can boost output. Senior women produce more work when they have less need to give feedback to junior colleagues.

The impacts of remote work that we document are not immutable. They depend on management practices and reward systems. If providing thoughtful, high-quality training to junior colleagues is clearly recognized and rewarded — rather than falling into the category of invisible work that women often do for little reward — junior women may receive great training even from afar, and senior women may be better rewarded for the in-person mentorship they do.


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