The pandemic has been tough on working women. But for some climbing the corporate ladder, it’s opened up a world of possibilities.
Lora Council wanted to take on a bigger role in community health care, but leaving Lexington to explore opportunities elsewhere wasn’t in the cards. Her daughter is in fourth grade, her husband works at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and her parents live nearby. “This is kind of our center,” she said.
During the pandemic, however, she realized how effectively she could work remotely at her existing job, as president of medical staff at Cambridge Health Alliance So she expanded her job search beyond the Boston area, which she likely would not have considered before. In April, she started as the chief population health officer at Yuvo Health, a New York startup that provides tech and administrative services for community health centers, and visits the office just once a quarter.
“I’m going to be doing something different,” Council explained to her 10-year-old daughter. “But I’m still going to be sitting here in front of this computer when you come home.”
With more companies normalizing remote work, making a career move doesn’t necessarily require uprooting your family or making frequent business trips — or even spending long hours at the office. These changes are proving especially significant for women, who tend to shoulder a greater share of domestic duties and aren’t promoted at the same rate as men.
In some sectors, the glass ceiling is already starting to crack. One in four leadership roles at large global tech companies is expected to be held by women this year, according to Deloitte forecasts, a significant gain since 2019.
But there’s ground to make up. Women comprise 44 percent of low-level managers but just 15 percent of those at the highest level, according to 2019 ADP Research Institute data — a gap attributed to women’s family obligations and to stereotypes that they aren’t interested or able to perform demanding roles because of those duties.
Early on in the pandemic, working women struggled, particularly those with children whose schools or day cares shut down. There are still 656,000 fewer women in the labor force than there were before March 2020, chiefly those in the service sector or without college degrees, and the labor force participation rate of Latinas has recovered more slowly than it has for other women.
Because of their need for flexibility, women have a tendency to sell themselves short, accepting fewer promotions than men as inevitable, even justified, said Paula Ratliff, president of Women Impact Tech, a group supporting women in tech. But if remote work becomes the norm, that double standard may fade.
It’s too soon to tell how much it could move the needle for women at the top, said Lauren Pasquarella Daley, who leads the Women and the Future of Work initiative at Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in leadership. But anecdotally, she’s heard about women finding more advancement opportunities, and companies trying to bring more women into leadership roles in recent years to have a whole new slate of candidates to consider.
The sheer number of people working from home during the pandemic helped lift the stigma that this arrangement is “women’s work,” and somehow tied to child care and therefore less productive, said Yana Rodgers, a labor studies professor and director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. Early in the pandemic, women in white-collar leadership positions experienced the biggest increase in telework of any demographic, according to Rodgers’s research, while men working from home started taking on more domestic responsibilities, which contributed to women’s job satisfaction and productivity.
“Home-based work was associated with the mommy track,” she said. “I think that attitude has been busted.”
Women now make up 34 percent of “key leaders” at Cimpress, parent company of design and marketing business Vistaprint (now Vista), compared with 26 percent in fiscal year 2020. Cimpress, which employs about 600 people in Massachusetts, had already been laying the groundwork to bring in more female managers, and going “remote first” accelerated that effort, said Maureen Carroll, Vista’s senior director of global talent acquisition.
Senior women candidates especially seem to value the opportunity to spend more time with their families, go on walks in the middle of the day, or even get a load of laundry done when it’s convenient, she said. Having more ownership over your life decreases stress, she said, even if it’s something as simple as not fixing your hair every day.
“You have more choices that can lead to having more harmony in your life,” said Carroll, who plans to work in Vermont for six weeks this summer while her three children attend camp there.
At her former job as chief operating officer of a community bank in Springfield, Kate Megraw worked long hours in the office, even during the height of the pandemic. She has a strong support system; her husband cares for their two young daughters when she’s working late and her parents watch them during the day. But she was “missing the magic of having toddlers.” So when Webster Five bank in Auburn recruited her in late 2020 to be its chief information officer and told her that once the office reopened she would only need to come in a few days a week, she jumped at the chance.
Even though her new job is more demanding, Megraw now has time to pick up her daughters after work and make dinner before the sun goes down. She goes to the gym, which she never had time to do before, and even walks the dog while attending webinars if she feels like it.
“It’s been really helpful mentally, physically for my family life,” said Megraw, 31. “I’m so much stronger now than I was a year ago. And I’m certainly a better CIO for it, a better boss, a better friend, partner, mom.”
Women whose spouses are also working remotely are getting even more help along the executive track.
Kady Srinivasan and her husband have been working from home since the pandemic began, and Srinivasan said her husband’s greater involvement with their son, now 10, has been a “godsend.” In January 2021, she became global head of marketing for Boston e-mail and text marketing platform Klaviyo, in no small part because she could stay in San Ramon, Calif., and travel to Boston once a month. At Klaviyo, which stopped requiring workers to come to the office in March 2020, the number of female executives has increased 43 percent since 2019.
At a previous job in San Francisco, Srinivasan, 44, spent years commuting two hours each way. Working remotely during the pandemic, she said, opened her eyes to the beauty of having that time back, not just for herself, but for her relationship with her son. Before, they had a nanny and a housekeeper.
“Everything was outsourced,” she said.
Now Srinivasan has time to take her son to school and help him with science projects. Her husband makes his lunches and volunteers at field day.
“This probably has been the most demanding job of my entire life and I don’t think I would have been able to do it without my husband taking on a huge burden at home,” she said.
Srinivasan is even able to have dinner with board members or attend industry happy hours — in Boston or the Bay Area — something she rarely had the time or energy to do before. Being able to focus on her career and spend more time with her family has made both parts of her life more satisfying, she said: “It’s been transformative.”