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Could WFH Affect the Gender Labor Gap?

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Even before Covid-19, working parents were doing an all-too familiar dance, staying above water while juggling working life with childcare.

But add a pandemic to the mix and many households have found themselves in a tougher spot. With homes turning into part offices, part daycare centers, women in particular have seen their schedules fill up. So far, working moms feel that they are shouldering most of the home-schooling, housework, and childcare. (Hat tip to this illuminating poll from the New York Times.)

It’s a lot. And on top of mounting responsibilities at home, women have been disproportionately affected by pandemic-related job losses. In September, 80% of the workers who dropped out of the labor force were women, according to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

However, there could be a silver lining that comes with this shift to more telecommuting. Wider scale adoption of work-from-home may also represent potentially more economic opportunities for women. To wit, this nugget from our friends at Goldman Sachs Asset Management:

"The option to work from home could help to narrow the gender labor force participation gap by bringing more mothers into the labor market. This reinforces our belief that women are the next engine of growth, with their consumption potential amounting to more than the GDP of two emerging markets, China and India, combined."

Remote work could also even out responsibilities at home. According to this report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, couples spend almost an equal amount of hours on weekly childcare when they’re both telecommuting, compared to the 7 hours for women and 4 hours for men when they commute to work. 

If WFH persists at its current scale, this could be a huge leap. Working from home most of the time was a growing (but still limited practice) before the pandemic hit. In 2005, only about 3.6 percent of the US workforce primarily telecommuted compared to 5.3 percent in 2018, according to a Census survey. 

Flash forward to 2020, and some surveys Goldman Sachs Research reviewed suggest we’ll see increased frequency of remote work even after the pandemic. Based on a sample of senior executives at US firms from the Survey of Business Uncertainty, employers expect that the number of full work days performed at home will roughly triple in the post-coronavirus economy. 

But more is needed for deep change to take hold. WiFi access, for example, is still an issue for many US employees. Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom surveyed workers and found that only 65 percent of Americans could support video calls and 35 percent “have such poor internet at home – or no internet – that it prevents effective telecommuting.” 

Not to mention, coming into the office has certain perks. Research has found that teams who work in person typically solve problems more quickly and tend to have more cohesion. Essentially, in-person work could foster more creativity and innovation. 

The Harvard Business Review points out that managers can (and should) take steps to retain women employees, especially when work is happening remotely. That includes being mindful of the “motherhood penalty,” running virtual meetings equitably, and ensuring that digital spaces are inclusive.

Finally, kids still need to be cared for and household chores need to be ticked off the to-do list. In heterosexual couples, that means fathers may need to chip in more around the home. Mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend 3 hours or more a day on household chores or childcare, according to the latest “Women in the Workplace” annual report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn. 

Right now, many children are going to school online, which adds to work-from-home responsibilities. The return of full-time, on-site schooling could alleviate some of this stress. But parents working from home would still need to look after (or figure out childcare arrangements) for children who aren’t going back or old enough to be in school.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs® but may not reflect the institutional opinions of Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.

Marcus by Goldman Sachs® is a brand of Goldman Sachs Bank USA, which is an affiliate of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, LP