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Is your organization walking back decades of progress in gender equity with a snap of its fingers? The question may sting, but the data tells an uncomfortable truth: forced Return to Office (RTO) policies may unintentionally roll back the progress we’ve made toward gender equality in the workplace.
By scrapping the gains in flexible working environments made during the pandemic, firms are essentially establishing a “men first” hiring policy, whether they realize it or not. An inflexible RTO approach is pushing women out, which in turn fosters an environment that is even more exclusive. This exclusivity cycles back as a self-fulfilling prophecy, putting yet another layer of glass on that notorious ceiling.
Gains on the gender pay gap: A precarious progress
McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org recently published their Women in the Workplace report for 2023. The study spans an impressive 27,000 employees, 270 senior HR leaders, and 270 companies. We are inching toward equality, however reluctantly. Women make up 28% of the C-suite, a historical peak. But before we uncork the champagne, let’s not overlook the asterisks that accompany this headline. The journey to this milestone has been arduous, and the path ahead is fraught with stumbling blocks that threaten to undo this progress.
Women reaching the C-suite represents a powerful narrative of hard-won battles in boardrooms, oftentimes against a backdrop of systemic obstacles. Yet, even as we celebrate the 28%, we must grapple with the glaring disparity that women of color comprise just 6% of this top-level leadership. It’s a somber footnote that screams: our work is far from done. And unfortunately, the barriers are not just confined to the boardroom — they infiltrate every level of the corporate hierarchy.
Let’s talk about mid-tier promotions, a critical inflection point in anyone’s career, but especially for women. This is the stage where the corporate ladder starts to narrow significantly, and every rung upwards becomes exponentially more competitive. According to the report, for every 100 men promoted from entry-level to managerial positions, only 87 women achieve the same elevation. Break it down by race, and the numbers are even more bleak — 73 women of color get promoted for every 100 men.
We can’t talk about progress without addressing microaggressions. They’re the tiny pebbles in the shoe, easily dismissed but impossible to ignore. Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to have a colleague take credit for their work and twice as likely to endure unsolicited commentary about their emotional state. Consequently, the majority of women — particularly women of color — adapt their appearance or behavior to circumvent these demeaning experiences. And guess what? Those who do are three times more likely to contemplate leaving their jobs.
What these numbers don’t show are the invisible forces at play: the quiet sidelining of women during key project assignments, the unconscious biases coloring performance reviews, and the systemic hurdles in networking opportunities. Put bluntly, the system is rigged, and the odds are skewed heavily against women, even more so against women of color.
Given the existing imbalances, the question becomes: can we afford to destabilize this precarious progress? Because what’s at stake isn’t just a few percentage points in a C-suite representation chart—it’s about shifting the entire cultural narrative around what leadership looks like. And more practically, it’s about leveraging the full extent of available talent in an increasingly competitive business landscape.
Why a forced return to office is a gender issue
And now for the gut punch: all this hard-won progress is on the brink of unraveling. Why? Because a mandatory return to office is hitting women harder.
At first glance, bringing people back to the office seems like an equitable move — everyone, irrespective of gender, resumes the daily commute. Yet, it’s anything but. The consequences of this seemingly uniform policy are essentially hitting the rewind button on the modest gains we’ve made.
To understand this, let’s take a look at a recent survey of over 1,000 UK CTOs and CIOs conducted by Nash Squared, which revealed a disturbing trend. Companies that mandated employees to be in the office at least four days a week had a conspicuously lower rate of hiring women — comprising just one in five new hires. Contrarily, firms that allowed more flexible work arrangements saw a 50% higher hiring rate for women. That’s a staggering difference, one that exposes the underlying biases and systemic issues at play.
Other research shows similar findings. A Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence survey focusing on the financial sector illustrates that if leaders have caregiving responsibilities, they are 30% times more likely to exit if their remote work options are rescinded. And unfortunately, women still are much more likely to be caregivers.
The blow to women from an inflexible return to office applies especially to high-paying, high-pressure jobs that demand workers be available at unusual times outside their contracted hours. The recent Nobel Award winner in economics, Claudia Golden, calls these “greedy jobs” and pointed out that flexibility during the pandemic allowed women to take more of these roles, helping narrow the gender pay gap. Reversal of RTO naturally reverses these gains.
What explains such disparities? Forced RTO policies neglect the existing social inequalities and pressures disproportionately faced by women. Talking about childcare responsibilities, the flexibility to work from home helps mitigate these challenges, allowing women to integrate their professional and personal lives more effectively. With RTO, the juggling act becomes more precarious, leading many to opt out of full-time roles or sidestep promotional opportunities that demand more in-office presence.
Moreover, women, especially women of color, often have to deal with microaggressions in the workplace, from being interrupted during meetings to having credit for their work usurped by male colleagues. The option to work from home doesn’t entirely eliminate these issues, but it does offer some level of insulation. Forced RTO means a return to these exhausting daily battles, which could lead to attrition among women who are already three times more likely to consider quitting when experiencing such microaggressions.
Now, let’s bring it back to the data. If women make up only one in five new hires in an RTO-enforced environment, imagine the ripple effect this will have on the already dismal ratios of women in mid-tier and senior roles. And if they are 30% more likely to exit, they are much less likely to be retained.
So, as we navigate the ever-shifting terrains of the post-pandemic workplace, it’s crucial to scrutinize the unintended consequences of our choices. Forced RTO isn’t just a logistics or productivity issue; it’s a dire gender issue with the potential to reverse years of slow but consistent progress. It’s a pivotal moment that calls for conscious decision-making, weighing the allure of returning to “business as usual” against the cost of squandering the inclusive workplaces we’ve started to build.
That’s why I tell the clients I work with to determine their RTO policies to focus on the impact of RTO on all categories of employees, not only white males. Doing so helps inform more inclusive decisions considerate of the needs of all employees.
The unintended consequences of RTO policies
Let’s not kid ourselves. The thought behind a return-to-office policy often stems from a well-intended desire to reestablish workplace culture, foster team dynamics, and reclaim some sense of “normalcy.” But in achieving these objectives, are companies factoring in the regressions that might occur in other equally crucial areas, like gender equality? The balance of power is already skewed; the flexibility in work arrangements is one of the few equalizing factors we’ve managed to introduce. Strip that away, and you’re not just affecting logistics — you’re altering career trajectories.
Enough with the doom and gloom. Here’s the wake-up call: this isn’t about appeasing any one group; it’s about ensuring that your talent pool is as rich, diverse and dynamic as it can possibly be. Make gender neutrality a cornerstone of your RTO policy. Use advanced analytics to monitor promotion rates across gender and racial lines. Equip your managers to recognize and counteract microaggressions.
Is this hard work? Absolutely. But if we let forced RTO policies dismantle what progress we’ve made in gender equality, then we aren’t just failing our women; we are failing our organizations.
So, are you in, or are you out?