26. Teleworking through a gender lens

Chloé Touzet

COVID-19 has brought teleworking to the fore, a practice that was marginal in OECD countries before the pandemic. As this new arrangement of working lives settles in, accurate data allowing to describe this phenomenon and to analyse its effects on labour market indicators, including gender disparities, are key to design well-informed polices. Data gaps and the use of inconsistent definitions only allow for a partial overview of this phenomenon. Despite these limitations, this section presents key trends in teleworking and neighbouring concepts, based on OECD research on the issue (Touzet, 2023[1]; OECD, 2021[2]).

Existing gender-disaggregated data on the use of teleworking suffer from issues of comparability (as the definition of teleworking varies between data sources) and a lack of longitudinal perspective. Moreover, datasets do not allow to research the effect of teleworking on gender inequalities, as gender-disaggregated data on teleworking use and relevant labour market indicators are not connected. Tackling these issues is key to research the implications of such changes in work patterns for gender equality.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, concepts like “teleworking”, “remote work”, “work from home”, or “hybrid work” have been used interchangeably, even if they cover slightly different concepts (Figure 26.1). The ILO proposes to differentiate between these concepts by looking at how they relate to the notions of “default place of work” and “physical location where the work is actually carried out” (ILO, 2020[3]). Following that logic, remote work is work carried out in a physical location that is different from the default place of work. Teleworking is a subcategory of that concept, which uses “information and communications technology/ telephones” to carry out remote work. By contrast, work from home is defined independently of the default place of work. In some data sources, work from home even includes overtime work from home, capturing cases when employees bring work home from the office outside of their normal hours of work. Finally, the term hybrid work refers to “a combination of telework and work on the employer’s premises” (ILO, 2021[4]) and is therefore not another type of work arrangement, but is rather used to describe a particular mode of teleworking (the other possible mode being full teleworking).

Conceptual differences complicate the comparative analysis of these phenomena. Pre-pandemic data sources include Working Conditions Surveys, which define teleworking as “regularly using ICTs and working in at least one other location than the employer’s premises several times a month”, and Labour Force Surveys, which focus on “employees working from home” (OECD, 2021[2]). Many of the new surveys launched since the spring of 2020 to track the growth of teleworking focus on work from home.

Teleworking defined as “work carried out in a physical location that is different from the default place of work, during normal hours, using information and communications technology” captures the transformation of working practices unfolding since the pandemic. Using this definition, surveys asking respondents about intensity (e.g. number of days spent teleworking per week on average) and frequency (e.g. whether this pattern is regular or more ad hoc/ occasional) could track the contemporary development of hybrid work.

As data do not allow reconstructing long-term trends in the use of teleworking in the pre-COVID era, Figure 26.2 looks at the evolution of “work from home” between 2003 and 2021, using labour force surveys.

In EU countries, between 2003 and 2019, trends in men and women working from home were largely parallel. Shares of employees working from home (usually or occasionally) increased slowly between 2003 and 2012, and a bit faster between 2012 and 2019 reaching 10.7% of men and 11.8% of women. Occasional work from home was more prevalent than regular work from home among both men and women. On average, a slightly higher proportion of women than men worked from home (usually or occasionally). United States data do not distinguish between occasional and regular work from home. The overall prevalence of working from home among both men and women was higher in the United States than in the European Union throughout the period, oscillating between 15 and 20% of men, and 15 and 23% of women.

Comparing “work from home” to “teleworking” data shows that the two concepts do not perfectly overlap. Data on teleworking show that more men than women regularly teleworked in 2015 in most countries covered (OECD, 2021[2]). On average, 10.4% of men worked outside of their employer’s premises several times a month using ICTs, against 7.7% of women. This gap, relatively small on average, was observed in all but four of the 28 OECD countries represented (Italy, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and the United States). In some countries, the teleworking gap was substantial: in Norway and Luxembourg respectively, 23% and 20% of men teleworked in 2015, compared to only 11% and 8% of women.

The fact that more men than women regularly teleworked before the pandemic in most OECD countries cannot be explained by a difference in the technical feasibility of teleworking in predominantly male and female occupations. On the contrary, in 2018 women were more often in occupations technically compatible with teleworking than men.

In the wake of the pandemic, several researchers attempted to measure the number of jobs that could materially be conducted away from the office. Dingel and Neiman (2020[6]) concluded that 37% of jobs in the United States could be conducted remotely in 2018; Sostero et al. (2020[7]) also concluded that 37% of jobs could be done remotely on average across EU countries in 2018. Individual level data for the United States and EU countries show that the gap between ability to telework and incidence of work from home before the pandemic was much larger for women than for men (Dey et al., 2020[8]; Sostero et al., 2020[7]).

This larger gap between potential and actual use observed for women might be due in part to their higher concentration in administrative and clerical support occupations; it could also owe to gender discrimination in access to teleworking, to pre-existing differences in the use of other flexible working arrangements, or to differences in preferences for teleworking between men and women.

Predictably, the most dramatic change on Figure 26.2 can be observed in the 2019-21 period. In the United States, the number of men working from home doubled between 2019 and 2020, jumping from 17.5 to 34.6%, while that of women increased even more sharply, from 21.1 to 48.4%. In EU countries, the number of men working from home (occasionally or regularly) also doubled, from 10.7 to 20.9%, and that of women also more than doubled, from 11.8 to 23.8% of female employees. Overall, gender disparities grew during the pandemic, as the increase in women working from home was steeper than that of men.

Trends shown in Figure 26.2 are coherent with trends emerging from high frequency data collected during the pandemic. Figure 26.3 shows data collected among employed individuals during the first lockdowns between March and May 2020. On average, in the 10 OECD countries covered, 39% of the men worked from home in March 2020, vs. 42% of women, with the highest gender gaps in favour of women in Poland, France and Germany. By contrast, more men than women worked from home in Australia, Austria, Italy, and Sweden.

Recent gender-disaggregated data on the preference for teleworking are not available. However, data on preference for work from home suggest that the gap between ability to telework and actual take-up (which as seen above is larger for women than men) is in fact unlikely to be attributable to different preferences between men and women. While women already expressed a stronger preference than men for frequent work from home in the beginning of the pandemic in the United States and EU countries, this gender gap was even larger a few months later. More women than men wanted to work from home daily or several times a week in the United States and EU countries. By contrast, more men than women supported “never” working from home at the beginning of the pandemic and this gender gap widened as the pandemic progressed.

Understanding how transformations in the use of teleworking might affect gender-based labour market disparities implies monitoring gender-disaggregated trends in the use of teleworking, but also analysing how teleworking might affect gender disparities in labour market. The following sections review findings in the literature on the effect of teleworking on gender disparities in work-life balance, job satisfaction, pay, and career progression, mainly focusing on studies based on pre-pandemic data.

The issue of how teleworking affects work-life balance and job satisfaction has been frequently researched (Cazes et al., 2022[10]) – yet most results are correlational rather than causal. Studies point to teleworking’s potential to help reconcile work with private life and to increase job satisfaction through increased autonomy and reduced commuting time. Yet, they also point to risks related to increased work intensity and (unpaid) overtime hours (Chung, 2022[11]), or social and professional isolation (Charalampous et al., 2019[12]; Tavares, 2017[13]).

Studies analysing gender disparities in how teleworking affects work-life balance show mixed results. Some studies found small effects of teleworking on work-life balance, with minor differences by gender (Allen et al., 2013[14]; Rodríguez-Modroño and López-Igual, 2021[15]). Others found positive effects for women, as commuting is detrimental to self-perceived health satisfaction (Künn-Nelen, 2016[16]) and psychological health (Roberts, Hodgson and Dolan, 2011[17]). Other papers report (more) negative effects on women as regards work/family conflicts, fatigue and subjective well-being (Kim et al., 2020[18]; Song and Gao, 2020[19]; Yucel and Chung, 2021[20]). Some point to positive effects only for men, or for men and childless women (Giménez-Nadal, Molina and Velilla, 2019[21]), due to women’s lower job expectations, lower gains due to shorter commutes and differences in the use of the time freed up from commuting, often dedicated to housework by women, and to leisure by men (Pabilonia and Vernon, 2021[22]). Causal evidence by Angelici and Profeta (2020[23]) found that Italian workers who can autonomously define their work place and schedule saw improvements in their work-life balance, and that both male and female workers spent more time in care- and housework.

Overall, pre-pandemic evidence suggests that teleworking does not increase gender inequalities in work-life balance and job satisfaction but mirrors pre-existing gender inequalities, with effects depending on prevailing contextual gender norms, expectations about parental roles and firms’ management cultures (Chung and van der Lippe, 2020[24]; Chung and van der Horst, 2018[25]; Kurowska, 2018[26]; Gálvez, Martínez and Pérez, 2011[27]). In unequal contexts, mothers use teleworking mainly to balance work and family commitments, while fathers might use it for different reasons such as productivity enhancement (Craig and Powell, 2012[28]). In other cases, teleworking contributes to gender equality by fostering a more equal sharing of household work (Chung and van der Horst, 2018[25]) and reducing the gender care gap, as men teleworking might spend more time on primary care than their counterparts in the office (Pabilonia and Vernon, 2022[29]).

Positive effects could be enhanced by combining teleworking with family-friendly policies such as childcare and eldercare (Song and Gao, 2020[19]), flexible hours (Angelici and Profeta, 2020[23]), and/or supporting a more equal use of parental leave between mothers and fathers (Wanger and Zapf, 2021[30]).

Teleworking can be a means of increasing female labour force attachment and may lead to higher earnings for women (Arntz, Sarra and Berlingieri, 2019[31]; Cazes et al., 2022[10]). Yet, if the positive wage effect is similar between men and women, the gender pay gap will be unaffected; if the wage premium is higher for men, or if women face a wage penalty when taking up teleworking, the gender gap will increase.

Studies find that teleworking can be associated with a wage boost which, however, has benefited men more systematically than women (Pabilonia and Vernon, 2022[29]; Fuller and Hirsh, 2018[32]; Arntz, Sarra and Berlingieri, 2019[31]). This could reflect real gendered productivity effects, if women experience more interruptions in their work when teleworking. However, gendered stigma, social norms, and firms’ managerial culture likely contribute to this unequal effect of teleworking by gender, given that this penalty also concerns childless women who regularly telework, and concentrates on highly-educated teleworking mothers while it helps closing the wage gap for other mothers (Chung, 2020[33]). Evidence on women and mothers’ higher propensity to select into jobs offering work from home and on women’s higher “willingness to pay” for that option suggest that counter-acting measures (e.g. pay transparency policies) might help to avoid adverse consequences on the gender pay gap owing to differentials in mothers and fathers’ bargaining position when adopting teleworking (Arntz, Sarra and Berlingieri, 2019[31]; Cazes et al., 2022[10]; OECD, 2021[34]).

Evidence on how teleworking affects men and women’s career progression is scarce. Chung and van der Horst (2018[35]) argue that teleworking can help women’s career progression, especially after childbirth, as teleworking mothers appear less likely to cut their hours. According to Chung (2020[33]), this could help close a career ladder gap, since teleworking is less stigmatised than part-time, thus less likely to lead to negative career outcomes. Arntz et al. (2019[31]) argue that promoting teleworking might strengthen women’s careers since it has a positive effect on the number of monthly hours that mothers work.

However, if teleworking is used primarily by women as a means of coping with unequal sharing of housework and caring responsibilities, it carries a risk of penalising women’s career advancement by diminishing their relative visibility to managers still using face time rather than outputs as a key element of performance appraisal (Tomei, 2021[36]), or by fostering preconceptions about women’s diminished work investment when teleworking among managers granting career advancement opportunities (Leslie et al., 2012[37]; Chung and van der Lippe, 2020[24]). Teleworkers, and teleworking women in particular, are found to fear that teleworking poses a threat to their career progression (Charalampous et al., 2019[12]) and training opportunities (Redman, Snape and Ashurst, 2009[38]).

Empirical results on measurable effects of teleworking on career progression are mixed. Elements around the use of teleworking seem to negatively affect the career prospects of teleworkers – the fact that men telework less than women (i.e. reduced face time concerns more women than men), men telework for different reasons than women (i.e. reduced face time affects men differently than women), and that performance evaluation and career advancement hinge on visibility and input measurement, rather than output evaluation (i.e. face time matters in career progression) (McCloskey and Igbaria, 2003[39]; Richardson and McKenna, 2013[40]; Leslie et al., 2012[37]; Chung and van der Horst, 2018[25]).

Some authors argue that additional measures should be implemented alongside teleworking to avoid potential career costs for women, including managerial training, human resources policies promoting equal career opportunities between teleworkers and office workers, policies aimed at mainstreaming teleworking by increasing its take-up among men and non-parents, and the provision of high-quality child and elderly care services which would, by relieving women of some of their caring work, help getting rid of the suspicion that women workers perform less when teleworking (Tomei, 2021[36]; Chung, 2020[33]; Leslie et al., 2012[37]).


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