Remote working could lead to new gender divide, stakeholders warn

Remote working likely to become feminised if employers return to old ways, Ictu warns

Remote working is at risk of becoming “mommy-tracked”, or taken up disproportionately by women with care responsibilities, stakeholders are warning as offices start to fill up again.

Laura Bambrick, head of social policy with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), fears the "time lag" between legislation on the right to request remote working and the return to offices already under way could lead to a new gender divide.

If companies start “settling back into old ways of working” then remote working “is likely to become feminised” and thus quickly “devalued”.

“We know from the research in the US, where remote working was much more established pre-pandemic that if your manager is not remote working – and managers still tend to be men – and you are remote working, then there are consequences for your career. You do get overlooked because old work practices do still value people being present.”


Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, says women are more likely to seek flexible work options "in the absence of proper, affordable childcare . . . so it is important they are there.

“But if women take up remote working more than men, we would be concerned there are strategies to ensure that doesn’t have implications for their careers.”

She says companies should consider a gender balance among remote-working employees, and she further recommends measures to ensure inclusion and participation of all employees in the workplace culture.

Tracy Keogh, co-founder of Grow Remote Ireland (GRI) – a non-profit organisation supporting companies to move to remote-working and workers to access remote jobs – says the most effective way of guarding against "feminisation" is for companies to embrace "remote first" for everyone.

She says there are two types of companies – “remote first”, which has jobs that are not location specific, and “remote friendly”, where a job is location specific but a “deal” is done with its current holder to “go remote”.

“But when they leave or retire the job goes back to Dublin. That’s not good for the man or woman in that scenario, whose progression will be hindered, they will be overlooked if they are out of the office, if there hasn’t been a systemic, cultural change in that company.”

Consider a senior employee on €120,000 who secures an arrangement to work remotely from the Burren. Why, Keogh asks, should that job have to return to head office when the employee leaves?

“The biggest career barrier for women living outside the big cities is their location. Why can’t the job be available to a woman already living in the Burren?

“There are enough agitators, men and women, who want this change, and want companies to go remote-first. What we don’t have is the supports in place for organisations.”

She says recent GRI research found the “biggest block” to remote working was “people managers” in a given company. GRI provides training on such issues a remote-managing teams.

“Companies need mentors and supports for this. Capital investment is required transitioning to remote first in education, HR, payroll, legal. We need to help companies with this.”

Remote-working parents: ‘You still need childcare’

Maggie Ahearne (40) lives in Kilkenny with her husband and two children. Until the pandemic she travelled to Dublin twice weekly for her work in IT.

Having changed job last year she works fully remotely. Her husband also works from home. “We bring the children to school in the mornings and have a childminder who brings them to our house after school, her house or to their activities.

“A lot of people had a perception that we could work and have the kids at home, but it doesn’t work that way. You still need childcare.”

She says “going up to Dublin once or twice a week was a nice balance”. She believes companies need to embrace remote working in such a way as to ensure the location from which a job is done becomes “irrelevant”.

The “balance” could then be achieved by organising workshops or regular meetings where colleagues meet. “I’d like to be able to get with my team every now and again.”

Asked about whether women are more likely to seek remote working, she says in her experience pre-pandemic the breakdown “was about 50:50 . . . but I work in tech, which has more men than women”.

Companies must be attuned to challenges remote working can pose, including isolation from colleagues and additional pressure workers feel to prove their productivity.

“If you are working at home and have a difficult conversation, and you’re not in an office with other people, that can really play on your mind. I think a lot of women can be impacted by that, if they feel under pressure and have a lot to juggle at home.

“What I would say to women is: ‘If you are in a company that is not embracing remote working and supporting you, you are not restricted to them. Take control of that. There are other companies that will support you.”

‘I don’t waste hours in the car’

Alan Myler (57), an electronic engineer, moved out from Dublin, to north Co Meath, with his wife and children about 20 years ago, for a better quality of life and more affordable housing. The daily commute to his job quickly became unsustainable.

“The average commute would be typically up to an hour and three-quarters each way. That was the impetus for me becoming a remote worker.” He reduced trips to Dublin gradually.

“Once the bit of trust was built up with my employer [that productivity would be sustained] they left me to it.” His wife, also an engineer with a Dublin-based job, remote worked too but hated the isolation. “She’s an extrovert and it didn’t suit her at all, so she switched out and became a teacher.”

The biggest advantage has been proximity to home when the children were young. “It is not a substitute for childcare though. We had different arrangements over the years. But if a child was sick or needed to be collected I could take half an hour out, which I couldn’t do when 80km away.”

He is “acutely aware” of his privileged position. “There is a supply and demand element. With my experience and skills I can push bit more, but someone more junior is at the whim of their employer more.”

He did “get the odd comment about ‘just doing laundry’”, which he ignored. “I work just as hard as anyone else and don’t waste hours in a car.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times