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.
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.
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.