Working in the Post-COVID World: Does Coworking Offer Greater Gender Equality?

It has been nearly a year since the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a worldwide pandemic. Accompanying this declaration were massive changes to how and where men and women perform their paid work, with substantial numbers of workers transitioning from working on-site to working remotely.

As a result, organizations and their employees have begun to question whether workers really need to work on-site in all occupations, and whether engaging in alternative work arrangements might work as well, or even better for both employees and their employers. If organizations decide to allow employees more alternatives to working on-site full-time, after the pandemic, what might these look like? Also, what might these changes to alternative work arrangements mean for gender equality at work?

Our study, published in Gender & Society with colleague Rosalyn Sandoval, asked exactly this question. Specifically, we investigated one alternative work arrangement, coworking, on the rise in the U.S. prior to the pandemic. Coworking is a work arrangement where employees from different companies come together to work in a shared space. The purpose of coworking is to bring people across occupations and industries together in one space to network and build community as they conduct their work. Coworking organizations maintain little organizational control over their members, lack management oversight of member activities, and have few rules in place to dictate member behavior. Coworking spaces, thus, are a new organizational form that blends the benefits of working inside a traditional office (i.e., social interactions, networking, etc.), with the autonomy and flexibility typically associated with working independently.

Substantial research has been conducted regarding the dynamics of gender (in)equality in traditional organizations, but how might gender dynamics differ in alternative work arrangements, like coworking organizations? We spent over 700 hours inside nine different U.S. coworking spaces and interviewed 78 men and women coworking members to find out.

Findings

We found that certain aspects of coworking organizations reduced inequality among men and women in coworking spaces, whereas other aspects facilitated gender inequality.

Reducing Gender Inequality in Coworking Spaces

Taking an intersectional approach to analyzing our data, we found coworking spaces were perceived by white women and racial minority men and women as places where they experienced less gender and racial inequality on an everyday basis.

Three major factors contributed to the reduction of inequality in coworking spaces.

First, affordable pricing policies made coworking organizations accessible to more diverse groups of people and reduced feelings of tokenism for some minority women.

Second, most coworking spaces had an open space design that encouraged regular interactions between members, effectively diversifying member networks. Work areas (offices and desks) were assigned on a “first-come, first-served” basis which resulted in members of diverse gender and racial statuses regularly working side-by-side during the day or running into each other in the common spaces. These spacing practices, as respondents reported, fostered cross-gender and cross-racial collaborations. Together, these two factors enabled men and women of diverse backgrounds to benefit both socially and professionally from one another’s expertise and networking connections.

Finally, the absence of policies that created rankings of members by occupation or job role facilitated more equal, everyday interactions among men and women inside coworking spaces. Several women, including women of color, we interviewed mentioned feeling more equally positioned to men because their occupation or rank (e.g., manager level) did not matter in the space, as it typically would in a traditional organization.

The fact that women perceived more equal interactions is important because people who regularly face microaggressions in workplaces tend to also be isolated and excluded from career opportunities and are more likely to leave their organization.

Increasing Gender Inequality in Coworking Spaces

Not all coworking spaces offered positive gender-related work benefits. One coworking organization we observed fostered gender inequality among its members. This coworking site  was different from others as it had the largest proportion of members who were men and it was in a high-profile location. But the factor that seemed to matter most for gender inequality e was the pricing policy.

Unlike other spaces, where prices were kept affordable, this space had extremely high membership fees, with some internal office spaces renting for thousands of dollars per month. The high prices to access this space restricted membership to only those who could afford it. Those who could afford this cost were mostly men in high-paying jobs (like finance or IT) working for large companies willing to pay the fees, or men running or working for already-successful entrepreneurships.

The result? Men generally had the means to access the best space inside the coworking organization which effectively segregated them from the few women working there. Additionally, the higher presence of teams from larger or already successful companies, already segregated by gender, meant that workers perceived few organizationally sanctioned reasons for men and women to interact with one another. Consequently, men and women interacted much less inside this space, possibly precluding women from certain opportunities to grow their careers and businesses via exposure to men’s powerful networks.

Major Takeaways

The post-COVID world may look very different from the pre-COVID world if organizations embrace alternative work arrangements for their employees. Coworking may be a viable alternative to working entirely on-site or entirely at home, as coworking organizations provide many social and professional benefits for workers as well as affordable options to access space for businesses.

Our study suggests coworking spaces may also have potential for reducing some of the unequal gender dynamics often found in traditional organizations which is a positive aspect of  opting to cowork. On the other hand, coworking organizations that enact exclusionary pricing policies or practices that restrict membership by income level may ultimately perpetuate gender inequality.

Amanda C. Sargent is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas are gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace; supportive supervision; and justice/fairness in organizations.

Jill E. Yavorsky is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Organizational Science at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas focus on patterns and mechanisms of workplace inequality; gender, work and family; and economic elites.

Letting Companies off the Hook: How Top Executives Explain Away Inequality

“The question I have is: do we really have a problem? Does [our company] have a problem? From the data I’ve seen, I don’t think so. I think the industry and this country potentially has a problem.”

This is what one high-level executive, Mike (pseudonyms used throughout), told me when I asked him about the causes of gender inequality in the technology industry.

In new research to be published in Gender & Society, I report on a year-long case study of a Silicon Valley technology company implementing a gender equality initiative. I explore how high-level executives’ explanations for inequality impact the change efforts they pursue. I find that executives tend to attribute responsibility to the broader society (as Mike does), or to individuals, rather than the organization.

Attributing inequality to societal explanations exclusively presumes broader cultural norms must change before gender inequality can be reduced. As demonstrated in Mike’s quote, these explanations often serve to exempt companies from responsibility for creating positive change.

Attributing inequality to individualistic explanations, also common among executives, points to unconscious biases in individuals. Executives might focus on men (e.g. making biased decisions when choosing whom to hire or promote), and/or women (e.g. failing to take risks or assert themselves.) Executives who hold these beliefs about inequality tend to pursue mitigation strategies such as unconscious bias trainings, mentorship programs, and developmental programs. While such efforts can be highly beneficial, if organizations stop there, they risk perpetuating structural forms of inequality that can be more difficult to eradicate. Research shows that without an organizational commitment to change, unconscious bias trainings can even exacerbate inequality.

In contrast, organizational approaches to reducing inequality would theoretically include efforts like changing recruiting procedures to access a wider array of candidates, using clear and specific evaluation criteria during hiring and performance evaluations, and ensuring pay and promotion decisions follow a fair process. However, executives rarely considered such approaches.

One intriguing question remains, beyond this study. Why do executives tend to favor individualistic and societal explanations for inequality? Why is it so hard for executives to see the organizational drivers of inequality?

Perhaps it is a symptom of broader cultural individualism, particularly in the U.S., and even more particularly in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps organizational incentives actively encourage and reward individualistic mindsets. Perhaps maintaining an individualistic view helps executives feel a sense of control in an otherwise disempowering situation. Providing executives with education about organizational strategies to reduce inequality might help them identify and improve organizational practices and procedures that contribute to inequality.

If executives can learn to identify problems in the way their organizations hire, sort, advance, and reward employees, they can hopefully begin to remedy important organizational sources of inequality.

Alison T. Wynn is a Research Associate with the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. She received a PhD in sociology from Stanford University and a BA in English from Duke University. Her research examines organizational policies and practices that may inadvertently create or reinforce inequality. In particular, she studies recruiting practices, perceptions of cultural fit, flexibility programs, and gender equality initiatives in industries such as technology, management consulting, and academic medicine. 

Thinking beyond gender: Why does sexuality and race matter in the tech industry?

By Lauren Alfrey  and France Winddance Twine

How do women negotiate male-dominated workplaces of the tech industry? In the February 2017 issue of Gender & Society, we address this question by building upon foundational work on occupational inequality. Inspired by Joan Acker’s concept of inequality regimes, we offer the first qualitative study and intersectional analysis of women tech workers from a wide range of backgrounds. We show how race, class privilege and gender expression shapes the occupational experiences of “geek girls.”alfrey_video_game

In our interviews with 50 men and women employed in a variety of positions in the San Francisco tech industry, we discovered that the gender-fluid, LGBTQ, White and Asian female workers reported a greater sense of belonging among male co-workers when compared to heterosexual women. In contrast to the gender conventional women in our sample, they were perceived as “one of the guys.” However, the gender-fluid Black LGBTQ women we interviewed did not experience the same inclusion or degree of belonging. Neither did conventionally heterosexual White and Asian women, who, like the Black women, also described routine micro-aggressions and sexist interactions that undermined their ability to be seen as competent equals in their workplace.

We argue that this represents a racialized and gendered spectrum of belonging—the dynamic forms of inclusion and exclusion that women experience according to their race, sexuality, and gender presentation. In occupational cultures where masculinity and hetero-normativity are the norm, fluid gender expression provides some women with conditional acceptance. Continue reading “Thinking beyond gender: Why does sexuality and race matter in the tech industry?”

Origins of the Gender Wage Gap: Part-Time Teenage Labor and Gender Inequality

By Yasemin Besen-Cassino

The gender wage gap is among the most persistent problems of labor markets and women’s lives and many scholars have approached this problem from different perspectives. Human capital approach focuses on individual characteristics and explains the gender wage gap through differences such as education, skills, training and job experience.  It mostly focuses on the domestic and maternal duties of women, and argues that women are more likely to take time off for childcare and parental leave, causing interruptions in their resumes resulting in less human capital. In addition, they are less likely to invest in their own human capital resulting in lower pay. Another view the occupational segregation approach, focuses on occupational differences argues that men and women are paid differently, not because of their individual characteristics, but because they work in different sectors, occupations and positions. Occupations that predominantly employ women are considered to be “women’s jobs,” and pay much less as a result. Despite the differences in perspective, nearly every study on the wage gap shares one thing in common: they focus on the adult labor force. However, almost every teenager works sometime throughout their high school years. Therefore, the work experience- and potentially the wage gap- start much before the completion of formal education and onset of full time work. Continue reading “Origins of the Gender Wage Gap: Part-Time Teenage Labor and Gender Inequality”

Tokyo’s First Female Governor and Japan’s Glass Ceiling

By Kumiko Nemoto

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Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defense minister, became the first woman elected governor of Tokyo. The recent New York Times article “Breaking Japan’s Glass Ceiling, but Leaving Some Feminists Unconvinced” reported that voting for her, regardless of one’s political views, would be a revolutionary act because there are few women at the top in Japan. However, the article also noted that some Japanese feminists have expressed disagreement with Koike because of her conservatism.

In the election, some Japanese feminists opposed Koike for her conservatism and for being a right-wing militarist, and instead explicitly supported the male candidate, Shintaro Torigoe, who lacked an effective campaign and ironically struggled with an allegation of sexual assault by a female college student. Some also believe that Koike lacks enthusiasm about improving women’s social status. A subset of feminists in Japan also tend to be more concerned about issues confronting working-class women than those facing women in high positions.

Koike is known to be a core member of, or has had deep ties to, the nationalistic right-wing cult Nippon Kaigi (or Japan Conference), which has 38,000 members and is said to have, among its aims, the restoration of the status of the emperor; keeping women in the home; reducing Western notions of rights and equality; beefing up the military; removing the pacifist section from the Constitution; rewriting textbooks to follow a right-wing agenda; and rejecting Japan’s war crimes and sexual slavery comfort women. However, little is known about the group’s actual activities and degree of political influence. Continue reading “Tokyo’s First Female Governor and Japan’s Glass Ceiling”

Patterns of Global Gender Inequalities and Regional Gender Regimes

By Christine E. Bose

When demographers make cross-national comparisons about gender inequality, they often develop just one summary score for each nation. Such measures incorporate several types of inequalities—e.g., income, education, health, or political rights—into that score. For example, Iceland ranked 1st, the United States 23rd, and Pakistan last (135th) among the countries included in the Global Gender Gap Index (World Economic Forum 2013). On the plus side, feminist activists and policy-makers use low scores to prod their governments into improving women’s status and rights. On the negative side, this blending of many inequalities into one score helps create false impressions about other nations. The data above suggests that Iceland is terrific on all types of gender inequality and that Pakistan is terrible. But in reality different issues related to gender inequality occur in these two nations and women of varying race, ethnic, or class origins living there also diversely experience gender inequality.

Popular perception suggests that the most significant gender inequality differences occur between nations of the Global North and Global South. This is partly true: The two regions are statistically different in the degree to which their social institutions, political-economic structures, and inequality outcomes are gendered. But this dichotomy also is inaccurate: It treats Global South nations as if they all follow a single gender inequality regime—while in reality they are more varied due to the mixture of developing and industrial national economies included. Indeed, some Global South nations are similar to the North. For example, the women-to-men literacy ratio is 1.00 in North American and .99 in Latin America and the Caribbean; while the women-to-men labor force participation rate is .89 in North America and .85 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Continue reading “Patterns of Global Gender Inequalities and Regional Gender Regimes”