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Women’s unique challenges in the remote work environment

Lori Villegas, senior vice president, wealth adviser for Morgan Stanley.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, many employers pivoted to remote work and meetings held through Zoom or other digital platforms. Employees got to see their co-workers’ homes, children, parents and pets for the first time.

The change reminded Lori Villegas, senior vice president, wealth adviser for Morgan Stanley, of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when the real man behind the wizard’s façade was revealed.

“(Remote work) allowed the cloak to come back on all of our lives, whether you be male or female, but the idea was we were all really just human beings and we all had a lot of different roles to fulfill,” said Villegas, who is based in Baltimore. “Before we might have been really compartmentalizing those roles, (but) everything sort of flowed together” during the early days of the pandemic.

Remote work during a pandemic has led to unique challenges for women, especially those who also take care of children and elderly relatives.

Many women had to juggle full-time work while helping schoolchildren with remote learning and keeping an eye on younger kids.

Sheela Murthy, founder and president of the Owings Mills-based Murthy Law Firm, notes that children come to their mothers many times throughout the workday.

“They feel that if you are at home, you are there to hang out with them and play with them and be there to help them out the entire day,” she said.

The result: Many women quit their jobs.

“It is very unfair, but that is how it has been for the last two years,” Murthy said.

Angela Celestin, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, said the transition to remote work has affected everyone.

“It is hard to generalize (about) someone’s experience when home life can look so different for everyone,” she added. “I can say in my experience there’s an expectation that because I am home, I can do more.”

Celestin works from home while her husband works at a traditional office. Household chores, morning routines and meal preparation used to be a shared responsibility, but Celestin says she has done more since she began working from home.

“That’s why it’s critical for employers — more importantly, managers — to cultivate a healthy work culture that gives employees the tools to succeed,” she said. “The lines between personal and professional life can easily get blurred. It’s important to communicate the responsibilities you’re carrying outside of work to your manager and team and set some boundaries, so working from home doesn’t feel like an endless spinning wheel.”

Murthy said women also miss the social aspects of working in an office, such as popping into someone’s cubicle just to say hello or to toss ideas around.

“All of that is not happening unless we force it and make it happen and schedule times, and most people are hesitant (to do so) because we are tired” from being online all day, she said.

What about the time women gained by not having to commute?

“You could have more meetings in a day and be more efficient because you didn’t have the drive time,” Villegas said. “Now, the downside of that is you had to realize that you had to really be thoughtful with your calendar, because you could book meeting to meeting to meeting and not give yourself any mental time to have downtime.”

Said Villegas: “I think for some people COVID (started) this change of life, (which) has really encouraged us to refocus on our boundaries.”

Celestin said remote work helps encourage a focus on health.

“Personally, I feel less tied to my physical desk,” she said. “It’s easier to get up and move around when I’m home. When I take a meeting or phone call while walking, I’m often less distracted because I don’t have the constant ping of emails. I also pay more attention to what I eat and how often I exercise. Feeling refreshed is important to my work.”

Murthy says women can use the experience of working from home to be more strategic and creative – and to head off burnout.

“Women are very good multitaskers and good entrepreneurs,” she said. “How can we use what is given to us with all of this remote work opportunity (so) we can come out ahead rather than constantly feeling like we are getting the short end of the stick?”

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