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Is remote work good for women?

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Remote work has unlocked a world of opportunity. It means I can type from my sofa, a blanket on my legs and a cat at my feet. It means I can work at my preferred (toasty) temperature. And it means I do not have to ascend three floors to the office canteen to find a spoon. Many hoped that the remote revolution would deliver somewhat more to women than improved access to cutlery. We now have more evidence, some of which is encouraging. Unfortunately, some of it stinks.

Even before the pandemic, remote work was plausibly making it easier for mothers to juggle their various responsibilities. One working paper looks at the gap in employment between college-educated women with and without children. Over the 2010s it shrank for women with degrees in marketing and computer science, industries where telework became more common. It moved less among women whose degrees prepared them for work in schools or hospitals, which was more likely to be face-to-face.

Today women in America are slightly more likely to work remotely than men, though the more obvious gap is in how much they hate commuting. That distaste contributes to the gender pay gap, as women will sacrifice a higher share of their potential wage to avoid a lengthy journey.

A recent working paper confirms this is the case in Germany, but somewhat surprisingly finds the difference among men and women without children too. Perhaps women have a particularly intense aversion towards the uncertainty associated with traffic jams, or the intimacy of experiencing someone else’s armpit on public transport.

The same study suggests that remote work could help to close the gender wage gap, by reducing that special sacrifice women make to avoid long commutes. But it does not eliminate it entirely. Even with the option to work from home for five days a week, women would still give up around 18 per cent of their wage to reduce the length of their commute by 45 minutes. Men would give up closer to 11 per cent.

It does look like women save more time from skipping their commute. According to data gathered by José Barrero, Nick Bloom and Steve Davis of Stanford University, they save around 12 minutes that would otherwise have been spent grooming, compared to 5 minutes among men. Women are more likely to confess that they do not shower when working from home. Perhaps men are sweatier — or more likely to lie.

What do men and women do with their extra time? There is some evidence of shifting balances within the household, though not always in a direction I would personally relish. Whereas men devote a higher share of the time that they save from commuting into childcare and outdoor exercise, women plough more of their saved time into household chores. (When writing this from home I considered resisting the laundry in the name of feminism, but ultimately caved.)

It is possible that men’s ability to work remotely is creating opportunities for their partners. Heterosexual couples tend to prioritise the man’s career when picking a location. But what if men can work wherever they want? The team from Stanford University estimates that whereas in 2021 around 1.4 per cent of men were fully remote with wives doing some in-person work, by the first few months of this year the share was 2 per cent.

The final question is how working from home affects productivity. Going into the office is a good way to build networks and get help. But another recent working paper, by Natalia Emanuel of the New York Federal Reserve, Emma Harrington of the University of Virginia and Amanda Pallais of Harvard University, suggests that there are trade-offs, which are more acute for women.

They study feedback given and received by software engineers at an online retail company, comparing them by gender and seniority. And they find that going remote lowered women’s feedback by around 20 per cent more than men, as they became less comfortable asking follow-up questions. Those who got mentoring earlier in their careers seemed to benefit later on, in the form of pay rises.

The challenge is that in-person work came with a price to productivity. Time spent giving help is time not spent on your own work. And as women were disproportionately doling out the feedback, the effects on them were stronger. The authors reckon that women simply found it hard to reject their teammates’ pleas for help. Spoons are hard to track down in the office, you see.

soumaya.keynes@ft.com

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