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Froma Harrop commentary: Is the Zoom class ceiling really about gender?

Summary: The ceiling, such as it exists, is not quite based on gender. It is based on the location of the desk.

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Froma Harrop Commentary
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Remote work "will hold women back," says CNBC. Home-based employees may be deprived career advancement available to colleagues in the company office. And women, usually tasked with child care, are more likely to choose -- or feel forced -- to work from home. That's why some are calling remote work "the Zoom glass ceiling."

But is this a feminist issue? The dilemma seems more tied to the drawbacks of remote work than to gender. After all, wouldn't it also apply to men, many of whom prefer working from home?

Frustration with the alleged Zoom glass ceiling is, at bottom, a focus on a narrow slice of the American workforce: professional women who feel that their choice to stay home with children should not interfere with their pay and promotions. Not everyone has that choice, specifically the women (or men) whose jobs require a physical presence -- emergency room doctors, police, firefighters, bus drivers.

Concern that working from home can slow down a career is not unwarranted. As Margaret Bailey, a mother of two young children and vice president at a St. Louis design company, told CNBC: "I love working from home," but "I also want to make sure that I'm meeting people across the company and continuing to have exposure and visibility."

Some advocates say the problem lies in cultural expectations that place most of the child care and housework on female shoulders. No arguing with that, but if this is the case, then changing these assumptions would be the job of the mother and father, not the mother and her employer.

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After all, we know of "house husbands" who stay at home with the children while their wives are off making money. Some parents split their working hours -- one doing nights, the other days -- so that someone will always be home.

As for beliefs stuck in cultural concrete, consider this McKinsey finding, reported by Vox: Two-thirds of men in top management positions had a partner who stayed at home or worked only part time, while two-thirds of women in similar high positions had a partner who worked full time. The female executives could have easily afforded having their man stay at home -- and rest assured, such men are available.

Besides, not all forms of compensation involve titles and pay. The website FlexJobs found that 80% of women regarded the ability to work at home as a top job benefit, while only 69% of men did. If so, why not just make peace with the trade-offs? Remote work offers the benefits of not having to commute and being able to run to the front door for a package delivery.

Some superwomen seem to pull off a swashbuckling executive career while overseeing the care of children. More often than not, they have expensive hired help in the wings.

Supporters of at-home professionals have offered remedies for what they see as a problem. One is for companies to look at what's getting done as opposed to where it's being done. And of course, the need to meet customers or deal with co-workers face-to-face differs according to the business.

Some companies are trying out hybrid models whereby the employee has to show up only on some days. That would take the option of working for a company in Omaha, Nebraska, while living in Honolulu off the table, but arranging child care could be easier.
Finding a work-life balance can be a challenge. In the end, though, we all are constrained by the 24-hour day.

And so the Zoom glass ceiling isn't entirely about women. The ceiling, such as it exists, is not quite based on gender. It is based on the location of the desk.

Froma Harrop can be reached at fharrop@wctrib.com or on Twitter @FromaHarrop .

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