Around this time last year, Pew researchers asked more than 1,800 American adults, "What’s holding women back from top jobs?" The top three answers were the same for both business and political positions: That women are held to higher standards, that the country isn’t ready, and that family responsibilities don’t leave enough time.
Double standards of performance, public discomfort with women leaders—these are personal beliefs about gender and work, perceptions shaped by culture and society. They're harmful and need changing.
But the belief that family responsibilities hold women back from leadership roles is a material reality for many. Fortunately, the kinds of flexible and remote work made possible by technology are already offering some solutions.
It's been estimated that 43% of working women quit their jobs when they have children. Even many of the best-credentialled businesswomen aren't exempt from the pull of family responsibilities. Harvard Business School recently found that many of its female alumni are choosing more flexible jobs, slowing the pace of their careers, and declining promotions.
By comparison, only 28% of men say that they've ever had to reduce their hours in order to care for a child or family member, according to a separate Pew survey.
So it's no wonder that women's career expectations have actually fallen, compared with earlier generations. In the same survey, 58% of millennial mothers said being a mother made it harder to advance their careers, compared with only 38% of baby boomer mothers. And only 66% of millennial women expected their career success to equal their spouses', compared with 79% of baby boomer women. 75% of millennial women expected to successfully combine family and career; 86% of baby boomer women said the same.
And while the past year in particular has seen noteworthy progress on paid family leave policies, there's more that can be done to give working women a much-needed leg up. That's where remote work comes in.
My company Remote.co works with companies interested in remote work as a business strategy. One thing we do is interview companies that operate mostly or entirely virtually about how they start, grow, and manage remote teams. We’ve seen that, compared to traditional companies, remote companies have nearly three times more women in leadership roles. By our estimates, women make up 42% of the leadership at remote companies, compared with 14.2% in S&P 500 companies.
In addition, 28% have a female founder or cofounder, and 19% have a female CEO. Compared to the wider business world, these numbers are stunning. I spoke to female leaders at some of the remote companies we've worked with to find out why they seem more conducive to women in top-level positions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, better work-life integration tops the list. As Kate Kendall, CEO and founder of the content and marketing talent marketplace CloudPeeps, tells me, "Distributed teams emphasize productivity, results, and output, rather than how many hours you were at a desk."
When couples start families, Kendall says, one person inevitably becomes the primary caregiver, and it’s usually the mother. Remote work eliminates some of the obstacles that tend to throw women off the traditional leadership course: inflexible schedules, long hours away from home, and long commutes.
Pam O’Hara, CEO of Batchbook, a small-business CRM provider, goes one step further. "The flexibility of a virtual workplace can empower men and women to take an equal part in raising children, caring for elderly parents, or other life occurrences that have traditionally fallen to women to handle."
Gender equality, O’Hara contends, requires flexibility for everyone.
Some of the women I spoke to argued that their remote companies are more results-oriented than traditional ones.
"Nontraditional work structures force organizations to measure employees on deliverables, not politics or likability, and that automatically levels the playing field for women," says Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR, a human capital solutions provider.
Rather than paying attention to intangibles like "toughness"—something that nearly 10% of respondents in last year's Pew survey saw as an obstacle for women—remote companies focus on what women actually get done.
Shelly Spiegel, CEO and chief creative officer at Fire Engine Red, a marketing, technology, and data solutions company, adds that her company "places a huge priority on getting work done. Productivity is paramount."
Of course, these are the anecdotal experiences of the women who choose to live them daily. And closing the gender gap in leadership is a complex undertaking; remote work is just one possible solution. But it can be a powerful one. Most of the people Pew surveyed see women and men as equally capable leaders, viewing women indistinguishable from men on traits like intelligence and innovation, and stronger in compassion and organization.
Those attitudes are promising weapons against other biases, and remote organizations may be better positioned than others to deploy them. The real proof, of course, will be in which of tomorrow's companies have both the most women at the top and the most impressive bottom lines. Those two challenges are best tackled together—and today.