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Will Working From Home Close the Gap for Women in the Workplace?

No. Working From Home (WFH) is a great innovation and has conveyed important benefits to employers and employees, but it has not made working from home all that great for women. Much more must be done to improve WFH for women to derive an equal benefit as the one seen by men.

Why do I care? Because I have been a WFH worker for a long time. Instead of having my first opportunity to work from home in 2020 like millions of Americans, I worked on and off from home starting in 1999. Blessed with work as a Digital Marketer, much of the work I did could be handled remotely. What started off as conference calls in 1999 shifted to video calls somewhere in the early 2000s. Email communications moved to slack, and DSL gave way to cable. The online work environment has evolved from 1999 making work from home much more doable for many workers and professions.

Working from home came as a new possibility to millions of Americans when the pandemic hit. Before the pandemic, only 5.7% of Americans worked from home. That number surged to 41.7% in 2020, and started flattening out in 2022 to 26%. The shift of so many people to working from home in 2020 has taught us a lot about the productivity of working from home, as well as made changes in the workplace for both men and women. While many people are experiencing working conditions they prefer that came up because of the shift to remote work, the shift has not evened the playing field for women. The shift to remote work has exacerbated inequality in the workplace.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of positive transformations have come about because of the shift to remote work. For example, 32.2% of managers agree that productivity has increased due to remote work. 75% of employees say their work-life balance is better. Turnover has been reduced by as much as 50% due to a remote work option. The data is in; remote work conveys many benefits to both employers and employees.

However, the pandemic has also led to about 2 million women choosing to leave their jobs. Why? One reason is stress. Working from home can be stressful. During the pandemic, women working from home experienced such challenges as increases in responsibilities, health fears, and unclear work / home boundaries. It’s not easy to hold together a household with kids home from school, possibly two parents working from home who are not used to being around each other all the time, closed daycare centers and manage the housework at the same time.

Men and women had very different reactions to working from home during the pandemic. In a McKinsey study, 79% percent of men said they had a positive experience working from home during the pandemic. Only 39% of women said their time working from home during the pandemic was positive. This 40 point gap is largely due to the different roles men and women play in their home lives.

American cultural work norms that started decades ago are very sticky. Today, American mothers are twice as likely to do 5 hours more of domestic chores than their partners every day. 66% of men in leadership have a partner who either doesn’t work or doesn’t work full time. In contrast, 66% of women in leadership have a partner who works full time.

Experts agree; we need a whole host of changes to make working from home the boon to American women that it has been for American men. Some of these changes include

  • Paying women equally for the same job. While women’s pay has been moving towards parity with men’s pay, in 2020 women earned $0.84 for every $1.00 earned by a man.

  • Valuing domestic work. An analysis by the New York Times in 2019 valued American domestic work at $1.5 trillion.

  • Access to affordable childcare. Where I live, in California, it is estimated that the average family would have to pay 40% of their income, about $28,000 a year, to cover 2 children in childcare.

  • Valuing women’s contribution to the care and culture of their organizations. (McKinsey)

In case you are hopeful younger people have figured this out and have constructed more equal ways of sharing the domestic work, don’t be. Studies have found that even millennials prefer a male breadwinner / female-carer model.

To make the shift to a more equal opportunity workplace, we need changes on all sides. Employers have a big role to play. Valuing women in the workplace will be necessary to retention and to having women play leadership roles. Employees have a role to play, being clear about their needs, demanding credit for their efforts in the workplace. Partnerships have a role to play, making sure that both parties are heard, efforts are appreciated, and communication channels stay open.

Opening the doors to work from home for more Americans was a great step. Productivity and work-life balance are up and turnover is down. However, much more work on the part of employers, employees and the public is necessary to make work from home more attractive to women. Michelle Walters is celebrating International Women's Day on March 8, 2023. Michelle is an Executive Coach and Clinical Hypnotherapist.

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