Remote work (or lack of it) is a diversity issue

As the primary caregivers of their children, homes, and often their aging parents as well, women benefit greatly from the flexibility that remote work can offer – simply not having to commute every day can be a major timesaver. “Hybrid” working models, where employees are expected to be in an office one to three days a week instead of five, can facilitate this. But that model assumes that you’re still able to live within commuting distance of your office, which is not always the case.

In a heterosexual couple, even if both spouses work, it is typically the woman who bends her career to that of her husband, staying with or following him to where his work is, even if that limits her own job options. This often makes economic sense because he is also the higher earner in the family. But it’s a classic Catch-22: As long as the family is prioritizing his career, she’s not likely to become the higher earner. (It may not help if she does: there was a point in my first marriage when I was earning three times my husband’s salary, but he still refused to move to Silicon Valley so that I could pursue my career. And studies show that, when women earn more than their male partners, domestic strife, violence, and divorce become more prevalent.)

In following a husband’s career, a woman may find herself stuck in a place where the work she loves and is best suited for is simply not available, leaving her frustrated as well as financially vulnerable. People in Italy used to ask me: “Why don’t you just teach English?” Because I don’t enjoy it and it’s not the thing I’m really, really good at – it felt like a waste of my hard-earned tech skills. Being able to work remotely in my chosen field, though difficult in some ways, was a lifesaver for me. Without it I’d have been forced to do work I didn’t like at far lower wages, and I would never have accumulated the money that helped to support my family and eventually enabled me to leave.

Companies that say: “You must be here to work for this company” are not taking into account the outcome for other family members. While a wife may agree to be the trailing spouse to her husband’s career, for economic or other reasons, this is often not the best choice for her own career.

Remote work can help to level the playing field for men and women, potentially saving careers that would otherwise stagnate. Supporting remote work enthusiastically and concretely is something that companies can do right now to improve diversity and inclusion.

Note: This post does not address some other ways that remote work can help support diversity. Remote work is also a boon for many people who have disabilites and/or are immuno-compromised – a topic for another post!

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