In Telecommuting, Women Find Fewer Opportunities Than Men

Even though it is more common for women than men to raise families, more than half (60 percent) of telecommuters are men, according to a recent survey from Flex Strategy Group/Work Life Fit Inc.

Employees choose to telecommute for work-related and personal reasons, according to Cali Williams Yost, the company’s CEO. Work reasons cited include the ability to be more productive and focused at home. Personal reasons listed include saving time from not having to commute and being able to participate in other activities such as going to the gym, sleeping later and taking the kids to school.

“The default assumption for women is that they’re doing it for personal reasons, and therefore it’s made it harder for women to comfortably make that choice and still feel that their careers will stay on track,” Yost said.

The assumption for men, though, she said, is often that they’re still being productive working remotely, which may make justifying not coming into the workplace easier for them.

The reality is both men and women telecommute for the same combination of work-related and personal reasons.

Companies can encourage women to telecommute by not making assumptions about their motives, Yost said.

“What leaders need to do is remove the ‘Why?’ of it completely,” she said. “It’s really about how we’re going to get the work done today.”

Bryan Miles, CEO and co-founder of the virtual assistant company eaHELP, believes attitudes toward telecommuting have changed in the past few years. The company provides virtual assistants to its clients, and all of its 389 employees work virtually, and the vast majority of its employees (383) are women.

When the company was founded in 2010, people were curious about telecommuting, he said, but did not see it as a viable option. Now he sees momentum where telecommuting is becoming a more acceptable option for developing a workforce.    

Whereas in previous years, the assumption was that remote workers don’t get much work done, now hiring managers see working from home as an option that increases focus, efficiency and productivity, Miles said. Women who have responsibilities at home that can benefit from this perception change.

Many women “work for family agility,” he said. They “want to contribute to their family, get paid well and be treated like an adult. That’s something that a remote job can afford.”

People naturally gravitate toward work environments in which they are treated like adults and in which they feel trusted, he added. 

The importance of trust was echoed in the Flex Strategy survey, which found that 9 out of 10 employees said they believe their bosses trust them to get the job done no matter where and when they work.

Colleen Garcia, a virtual assistant at eaHELP, said she feels challenged and productive working from home and that it allows her to have a more flexible schedule.

“For working mothers, [working remotely] is a huge opportunity,” said Garcia, who has six children. “There’s working full time, there’s stay-at-home, and now there’s this third opportunity.”

Although now she works virtually full time, her previous jobs have been at traditional office, where working from home even part time was rarely an option. She recalled a time when her mother died and she had to go into the office to do payroll because no one else in the office could do it.

Now, she finds it valuable that technology allows her to perform basically any administrative task, including payroll and filing, online. Just in the past four years alone, she said, digital technology has advanced and opened up options.

Although Garcia was able to embrace technology, that’s not the case for all workers. The Flex Strategy survey showed that even though the technology is there, there is a lack of training and infrastructure available to support a flexible work schedule.

Specifically, businesses are not taking full advantage of technology to affect productivity. For example, two-thirds of the survey respondents have never used video or Web conferencing, and only 2 out of 10 respondents have used project management software. And more than half (52 percent) received no training to manage to their work-life flexibility

Improving training and infrastructure is something else that would help promote the telecommuting option for women, Yost said.

She also said that, according to the survey, the gender gap in telecommuting is shifting in the right direction. Although men still represent the majority of telecommuters, women are gaining ground. Only 29 percent of women telecommuted in 2013 compared with 39 percent in 2015.

“To see these numbers becoming more equal shows me that we are removing the ‘Why?’ assumptions from the decision to telework, and as a result it’s freed women up to make that decision as validly as a man does,” Yost said.

This article originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Workforce