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Becoming a leader in a unicorn tech startup might seem like #careergoals for many. For me, it was anything but. I struggled in my role and had a hard time finding a place in a culture that seemed to be built exclusively for my male coworkers, where I was criticized for my opinions and disliked by junior male teammates or counterparts for seemingly no reason.
I wasn’t alone. In fact, McKinsey reports that today, women are leaving their jobs faster than ever before, often citing that they’re overworked, underpaid and unable to advance. For women of color, lower economic status or disabilities, the situation is even more dire.
Though I experienced workplace bias as a woman, I was fortunate to have enough privilege to leave a toxic environment and move on to start my own business. From then on, I dedicated my energy to creating the kind of work culture that would offer a place for women and other marginalized groups to feel safe, thrive professionally and have their voices heard.
As it turned out, the workplace I designed wasn’t an actual space at all — it was a virtual space. And what I discovered as I launched my own business was that remote work is the great equalizer and a powerful catalyst for change.
Related: Want to Improve Your Company’s Diversity? Go Remote.
Back to the office? Back to the Dark Ages
Of course, the kind of innovative change that allows marginalized groups to thrive really gets under the skin of the people in power.
Business Insider recently compiled a list of major brands currently demanding a return to the office. Every single CEO and/or COO on the list was male — and very few belonged to any non-majority group.
Why? Because traditional company models are primarily run by privileged men of a certain age, who appear to feel their positions of power are threatened by women, people of color or the LGBTQIA+ community. Remote companies, on the other hand, are proving to have more diversity and their employees are often better educated, better paid and more representative of differing cultures, backgrounds and voices.
Top 3 ways remote work shatters the glass ceiling and smashes the patriarchy
While some leaders try to placate employees by promising “hybrid work,” it still chains workers to a particular location and a dedicated schedule, and it drains the talent pool to — you guessed it — only those who look, act and think like the people in power. In fact, studies are finding that hybrid work leads to as much proximity bias as traditional in-office work. Remote work — truly 100% remote — breaks those chains, turns the talent pool into a vast ocean and offers location and time freedom that empowers employees to soar. How?
Parents aren’t punished for parenting
During the pandemic, parents faced the challenges of working, schooling and parenting with the entire family at home. However, according to the Pew Research Center, mothers overwhelmingly bore the biggest burden, with some saying they passed up on important projects that might have advanced their careers or left their jobs entirely. Women were also nearly twice as likely as men to feel they were viewed as less committed to their role and their company.
Even when we aren’t amid a global health crisis, parents still have to parent. In today’s society of primarily two-income households, parenting responsibilities — in heterosexual relationships — still fall more frequently to women who give up time from their day to ensure their children are thriving.
Remote work levels the playing field by giving employees greater autonomy and control over their schedules. Mothers don’t have to worry about taking kids to doctor appointments or sporting practice or stress over missing a recital because of work. They don’t have to fight for private breastfeeding locations in the office or spend hours pumping breast milk before/after work. They don’t have to leave the office or take a sick day to be at home because they already are home and have the flexibility to work around family and motherhood obligations. In this way, they achieve greater balance and have more opportunities to advance.
Related: Remote or In-Person? It Doesn’t Matter — Why Building the Best Team Matters More Than Location
Different abilities are championed
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2022, the employment of people with disabilities had risen higher than ever before. This is because remote work breaks barriers — sometimes literally with offices, work environments and cities that aren’t built for disabilities — allowing those with disabilities to work from the place where they are safest, healthiest and most comfortable so they can do their best work.
This allows employers to hire those with differing needs or abilities more easily and can also open doors that were previously closed to some employees who are neurodivergent or who have “invisible disabilities.” These candidates often feel they are ignored or overlooked, but they frequently bring new and diverse assets and skills to a remote team.
Location freedom eliminates borders
In most workplaces, people in the dominant culture typically benefit from their location. They often live in more urbanized areas with above-average incomes, better access to resources and higher education levels.
Remote work can break down those borders and widen the pool of candidates beyond physical and figurative borders. This can make it easier for people in rural or lower-income areas who may not have previously had a path to higher-paying, more sustainable careers to find jobs that give them real opportunities to advance.
As long as your company is able and ready to provide workers with the tools they need — high-speed internet, necessary hardware and access to a tech stack — there is no reason an employee from a lower-income or rural location cannot thrive.
Related: Remote Work Is Here to Stay. It’s Time to Update the Way You Lead.
How do we get there?
“If you build it, they will come.” Besides being one of the most misquoted movie lines of all time, what does it mean? It means that if you build a strong and inclusive remote work culture, the right talent will show up. Your pool will widen dramatically, allowing you to grow a remote team that is diverse, unique and well-suited to your business needs. Take these steps to get started:
Nurture your remote culture
Having hired many remote roles, I can say from experience that those who are entrenched in traditional office life often have a hard time adjusting to the freedom and flexibility remote work provides. That’s why every remote company needs a strong leader in people ops to help them make the transition.
Hiring the right Head of People is critical, not just to ease employees into remote work but to lay the foundation for remote culture. Most often, outsiders think it must be difficult — even impossible — to create relationships with people they don’t see in the office every day. In reality, it’s usually the opposite. Remote work creates a need to be more thoughtful, intentional and deliberate in establishing and growing a culture, which then becomes even stronger than those built in an office setting.
Make DEI more than a buzzword
Everyone talks about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) these days, but not all of them walk the walk. In a remote workforce, DEI may be ingrained in the company’s structure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a conscious choice that necessitates deliberate and thoughtful planning and action. A larger talent pool doesn’t mean much if you’re unwilling to get out in the deep end. There’s work to be done. When hiring, I have found that there aren’t as many diverse backgrounds and cultures among candidates as I would like to see, and I often have to remind myself to dive deeper.
Why? Because candidates don’t always begin from the same starting line. Creating a true DEI program takes a lot of work, especially if you’re really committed to finding candidates from marginalized groups who aren’t coming across your job listing on LinkedIn. So, while DEI is, in some ways, a natural part of a remote team, it also takes planning, effort and consideration.
Related: Here’s How to Foster Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Remote-Work World
Making remote work work for all
A more diverse and equitable workforce isn’t going to manifest overnight. But many founders who have committed to fully remote work, even before the pandemic, are looking for ways to make strides in improving the workforce for everyone, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or cultural background. I know I am.
Remote-first founders understand that it makes us better employers, strengthens our bottom line and helps us grow as leaders and as humans. That is truly the power of remote work — one of the greatest equalizers of our time.