Remote workers could be 50% less likely to be considered for promotion as proximity bias becomes a threat to gender transformation in the workplace.

Hybrid work trends show that women, who typically carry additional weight on the home front, opt for more time working from home compared to men, who are more likely to return to the office fulltime.

Advaita Naidoo, Africa MD at Jack Hammer Global, an executive search firm, says as companies and workforces continue to grapple with the issue of return-to-work, fully work-from-home and hybrid work arrangements, we must be careful not to let this contemporary workplace challenge further erode or even reverse gains made on the gender transformation front.

Proximity Bias versus Promotion

Proximity bias is the idea that employees in closer physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace, such as promotions, than their remote counterparts.

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Being present in the workplace

“Unfortunately, being present and proximity bias have not gone away with the old paradigm of bums-on-seats as a knee-jerk productivity measure, which means that managers are still inclined to reward the people they see in the office fulltime, rather than considering the actual contribution of the work-from-home or hybrid employees. There is also often an unspoken judgment against people who are not in the office.”

Naidoo says this proximity bias is estimated to lead to a 50% reduced likelihood of the fully remote workers to be considered for promotion.

 “After the pandemic, domestic circumstances have changed for many families, including those who were both caregivers and worked fulltime.

“Divorce, estrangement and a permanent move to home-schooling for younger children, as well as the loss of support networks that previously helped with children of school-going age are why women, for the most part, now have to juggle additional responsibilities while they are also expected to perform at pre-pandemic levels at work,” she says.

When promotional opportunities or project lead roles arise, women who are working at or beyond capacity are either passed over by management or are slow to apply because they are already overburdened by their dual career and home responsibilities.

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Women can be hyper-productive

“Naturally, no manager wants to further overload someone they think is already struggling to cope. However, what is lost from consideration here, is the fact that many career women can and do operate at a level of efficiency and hyper-productivity that is comparable to their fulltime office peers.”

What is concerning is that these factors are now adding up to a situation where the already meagre female leadership pipeline is not likely to improve anytime soon, which will devastate companies’ ability to affect the gender transformation in senior leadership most of them are trying to achieve, Naidoo warns.

“Companies should therefore urgently assess the degree to which new ways of working could be disproportionately affecting the women in the organisation and if necessary draft clear policies to support these women and nurture their ongoing career progress.”

In the USA, author and activist Reshma Saujani leads the Marshall Plan for Moms in recognition of the need to support specifically women’s economic recovery and empowerment. It aims to create sweeping changes in three focus areas:

  • Workplaces: organising C-level executives to transform workplaces in recognition of the additional duties placed almost exclusively on mothers on the home front
  • Culture: through creative campaigns and compelling thought leadership, changing the way motherhood is seen and valued
  • Government: working in coalition with advocacy partners to campaign for benefits, including childcare and direct payments.

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South African women not so lucky as remote workers

“Although the same issues face many South African women, local circumstances will not easily allow for a similar local plan for mothers, but that does not mean the impact on companies falls away.

“Exhausted, overworked and under-appreciated female workforces will have the same negative impact on companies here as abroad, in terms of the bottom line, as well as gender transformation.”

Naidoo says the onus is therefore on companies to take the initiative to ensure that those female leaders they previously identified for career progression do not fall off the radar and that promising young female leaders are actively identified and mentored.

“Much has been done before the pandemic to develop leadership pipelines for both racial and gender transformation and those efforts should not now be discarded in the rush to return to old ways of working.”

By editor