Thought Leadership: Monitoring the progress of women in virtual work arrangements
This article originally appeared in the SHRM.org daily newsletter. It was written by Kyra Leigh Sutton, research director at Rutgers Business School's Center for Women in Business.
Offering virtual work arrangements has shown to be an effective way to support the advancement of female employees. However, there is less certainty about how to monitor the career progression of women working remotely.
More than 80 percent of women rate remote work arrangements as one of the most desirable job features (compared with 69 percent of men), according to a recent survey by jobs site FlexJobs.
Further, a recent Harris Poll found that about 52 percent of women desire to work remotely and would like to do so in the long term, compared with only 41 percent of men. Women working virtually may experience benefits such as:
- Flexibility to remain in the workforce after the birth or adoption of a child.
- More adaptability to family demands.
- Enhanced well-being.
- Increased life satisfaction.
- Reduced depressive symptoms.
However, research also suggests that while women benefit from working in virtual environments, these work arrangements could simultaneously inhibit their career advancement opportunities.
For example, women in virtual work arrangements could experience being stigmatized and perceived as prioritizing family over work. Consequently, women working remotely may experience challenges such as: Fewer networking opportunities, reduced visibility and a greater likelihood to be passed over for promotions and high-visibility assignments.
A study by Pew Research Center revealed that 51 percent of moms working remotely found it difficult to progress in their careers compared with only 16 percent of dads working remotely.
The Importance of Dashboard Metrics
How can companies continue offering virtual work arrangements without compromising the career advancement of female employees? Dashboard metrics could help.
Enbridge, a global energy company in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, began tracking its gender representation through an Excel spreadsheet. After Enbridge merged with Spectra Energy, they built a dashboard and set representation targets for women, ethnic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and veterans.
The company also tracks additional metrics for new hires, promotions and departures. Since launching the dashboard, Enbridge has exceeded its goals of hiring and promoting women into manager-and-above positions.
Here are four measures companies can use to track the progress of women working remotely:
New hires. Companies can increase their female workforce by setting targets and tracking the number of women hired into virtual and hybrid jobs. Zillow saw an increase in female applicants once it refined flexible work options. Specifically, in 2021, 48.2 percent of applicants were women, up from 41.6 percent in 2019. More female applicants led to more female hires at Zillow in individual contributor and leadership roles.
While tracking the number of women hired is important, some companies are taking prescriptive approaches to target female candidates. Companies such as PepsiCo have initiated return-to-work programs for women re-entering the workforce after taking time off during the pandemic or to manage dependent care.
These re-entry programs, or returnships, are expected to grow in popularity over the next few years. Setting goals for the number of women hired into virtual roles enables organizations to build talent pipelines, especially if women have positive onboarding experiences, including access to mentors, professional development workshops and networking opportunities.
Audible offers a 16-week returnship that is 100 percent virtual. The program is open to professionals who have at least five years of professional experience and have been out of the paid workforce for at least one year to focus on caring for a dependent. After completing the program, participants can apply for fully remote and in-person roles.
Retention. Employee retention is a long-standing measure, and it's important to monitor among women working remotely. Tracking retention across levels (e.g., individual contributors, supervisors, middle managers and senior employees) remains critical in virtual environments. Additionally, organizations should track the attrition rate among women and men at each level to identify where the career ladder is broken.
Promotion rates. Research has indicated that female workers may be overlooked for promotion opportunities. And it's not because women are prioritizing family over work responsibilities. Women want to advance their careers. A study conducted by HP found that 1 in 3 women have applied for a promotion in the last year, yet only 42 percent of women received a promotion compared with about 50 percent of male workers.
It doesn't appear that women being overlooked for promotions is intentional. Instead, supervisors reported that they forget about remote employees when work assignments are made and promotions are given.
To ensure women working virtually are considered for promotion opportunities, companies can use dashboards to set promotion rates, focusing on internal promotion targets (e.g., 30 percent of mid- and senior-level positions will be filled internally).
Companies should also use dashboards to measure how many women are promoted into first-line supervisor roles, middle management roles and senior leadership positions. Tracking the level of the promotion will help companies determine if women are getting stuck in lower and middle management roles. To avoid any inequities that can harm remote workers, software company HubSpot tracks work location and other diversity data, such as gender, to ensure that virtual work arrangements will not interfere with promotion opportunities for women.
- Pay equity. Organizations must make sure that women and men in the same roles are paid the same. A study conducted by Owl Labs revealed two staggering findings:
- Gender penalty. Men working remotely are 157 percent more likely than women working remotely to earn salaries of $100,000 or more.
- Parental status penalty. Dads who work remotely full time are 233 percent more likely than moms working remotely full time to earn salaries of at least $100,000.
Some employers are using new approaches to set the pay of remote employees. For instance, some companies are paying employees based on where they live, while other organizations are using national averages to set pay levels. Some companies reduce the employee's pay if they work remotely and relocate to less-expensive cities. While the approach used to set pay levels will be distinctive to each company, what's critical to monitor is the pay equity of employees working virtually to ensure women and men doing the same roles are compensated the same.
Metrics are a critical part of measuring the success of employee-related initiatives. And, ultimately, any measures included in a company's dashboard, including the four above, should be linked to the company's values and strategic goals. Additionally, dashboards should track age, disability status, race/ethnicity and any other demographics self-disclosed by employees.
Dashboard metrics are not a replacement for listening to employees. Therefore, organizations should continue giving women opportunities to share their experiences and barriers (e.g., pulse surveys, focus groups and one-on-one conversations with managers).
When companies leverage dashboards and listen to female employees, they can make the changes that will support the development and advancement of women in their organization.
Kyra Leigh Sutton, Ph.D., is the research director for the Center for Women in Business and an assistant teaching professor of Human Resources Management for Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
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