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Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Toronto-based financial technology company Wealthsimple.handout

The increased investment in hybrid and flex work environments promises more flexibility for women; however, the future isn’t as bright as some might think.

There are still barriers to overcome when creating hybrid workplaces that are equitable for women and meet their needs as employees, leaders and often primary caregivers.

After the onset of the pandemic, Jennifer Davis, an assistant professor in the faculty of management at the University of British Columbia, noticed a shift in the career landscape across Canadian university campuses.

With research labs closed, resources lacking and virtual classrooms the new status quo, Dr. Davis sought to find out what these changing working conditions were doing to the health and well-being of her colleagues.

The results of her 2021 survey revealed a heavier amount of stress felt by women and racialized faculty members in this new remote work environment.

“Many women faculty reported increased caregiving responsibilities in addition to their academic work, which suggests that a hybrid [structure] may actually create more total work for women, even while increasing flexibility,” she says.

Dr. Davis’ survey revealed 73.3 per cent of men reported increased productivity during the pandemic, while 26 per cent of women could say the same. She also says women and racialized employees reported higher stress levels, more social isolation and lower well-being.

As a result, they are putting their careers on the back burner.

“Women faculty members are putting aside their research and university duties in order to prioritize their life obligations such as their children’s growth and education,” she says.

Remote, flex and hybrid work are increasingly commonplace. A recent KPMG survey of Canadian chief executive officers found that 43 per cent of respondents said they expect employees to work remotely for at least two days a week.

And women value the flexibility remote work affords them. A spring 2021 survey from online job site FlexJobs shows 60 per cent of women will look for a new job if they can’t work remotely at a current position, and 80 per cent of women say remote work is an essential factor when evaluating a new job.

To help support women faculty in the future workplace, Dr. Davis recommends policy changes such as reconsidering traditional performance metrics and increasing health and wellness support.

At Salesforce, a global software company specializing in cloud-based customer relationship management, the hybrid work environment has already jump-started corporate policy changes to encourage an equitable work culture.

“There is no doubt that women’s careers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” says Margaret Stuart, the company’s Canada country manager. “As a leader and a woman, I want to be part of a leadership shift that doesn’t make women choose between their careers and their other responsibilities.”

Salesforce has already introduced expanded family care leave, increased backup child care and elder care services, and home office set-up stipends. More initiatives include organizational goals for increased representation of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, multiracial and women employees in addition to implementing equality leadership programs.

“As we move forward, we need to be mindful not to fall back into old patterns with a two-speed work force where women work remotely and men go into the office,” Ms. Stuart says. “If we’re going to normalize women in the office, we also have to normalize men at home. This means encouraging parental leave and supporting men to undertake flexible working arrangements.”

Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Toronto-based financial technology company Wealthsimple, says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving an equitable hybrid work environment.

“Talk to the people in your organization,” she advises. “Whether it’s through feedback loops or surveys, talk to women and BIPOC [employees] about their experience during COVID-19, and when it comes to hybrid roles, ask them which policies are oppressive and which ones are empowering.”

While Salesforce, Wealthsimple and more companies are being pro-active in creating equitable and flex work environments, a 2020 report from RBC indicates women’s participation in the labour force is experiencing a 30-year low.

Ms. Hasfal-McIntosh recognizes the systemic and socioeconomic factors contributing to this downward trend among working women, including the stress of balancing a career with a role as the primary caregiver. However, she also sees the pandemic as an opportunity to reframe traditional notions of career success.

“There’s a new conversation women and racialized women are having. It’s not about downsizing their careers; it’s about adjusting capacity,” she says. “The pandemic has made us reconsider the role work plays in our lives and redefining what work means to us.”

She argues: Why should choosing to work in a hybrid, freelance, consulting, entrepreneurial or influencer position be considered less valuable or worthy than climbing the traditional corporate ladder?

“There are many career options for women and women of colour, and it doesn’t have to be in a traditional organization. These options make me feel more optimistic about growing my career in a way that honours myself,” Ms. Hasfal-McIntosh says. “Not everyone has these opportunities, and it’s a privilege to say that.”

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