When Lisa Cox joins a video call, the other participants see a smart, lively woman with a mass of blonde hair and a ready smile. What they don’t necessarily notice is the wheelchair she’s used since suffering a stroke 16 years ago, which resulted in the amputation of one of her legs.
Meeting people on screen, says Cox, limits the unconscious bias and “unintentional judgement” she often faces in person.
“I’ve rolled into many offices or boardrooms and been judged by strangers who first saw my wheelchair and only after that, saw me,” the disability advocate and writer posted on Instagram just weeks into Sydney’s 2021 lockdown. “But on a computer screen, this can’t happen. I’m only judged by what I have to say and by my work.”
As New South Wales and Victoria start to reopen in the next few weeks, many women – particularly those with kids, perhaps – will relish the opportunity to return to an office. But for others, remote working has offered a reprieve from the judgement and othering they experienced in the workplace, particularly for women of colour or those with disabilities.
In fact, almost 60 per cent of women of colour experience discrimination at work, according to a recent report by advocacy group Women of Colour Australia and Murdoch University. Only 30 per cent believed their identity as a woman of colour was valued in the workplace.
Most of the challenges surrounded so-called casual racism – “mostly around being taken seriously,” as one respondent reported. “Also… racist jokes said around me, followed by, ‘I’m not racist,’ or ‘I’m just joking’.”
Hardly surprising, then, that many aren’t looking forward to the return of office life.
Indian-Punjabi communications worker Simran* found that remote working “lessened” micro-aggressions she faced in her Sydney office. She’s had a colleague remark on her skin colour, and a manager who not only “infantilised” her in front of a client (dragging her closer to the client by the chair), but also offered to leash her “like his dog” if she needed him to be a “guiding force” during a collaborative project.
“It is better for us to be comfortable in our safe place where there are less opportune moments for those micro-aggressions,” she says. “If we go into work to humanise ourselves to white people who haven’t experienced diversity, then we’re the ones doing the work.”
The problem with Friday night drinks
Ros Newbound, who advises companies on inclusion practices as part of her work as founder of consulting firm Accuratus, says that remote-working is a great opportunity for employers to make values-based policies that are inclusive.
“A good workforce is one where everyone is on the same page – women, mothers, people with disabilities and so on,” she says. “When our workforce is structured to reflect [the interests of the dominant group], people miss out. We’re often guilty for planning for the ‘norm’, but we need to consider that there’s just not one way of doing things. It’s about creating a workforce that isn’t divisive.”
Remote work reduced micro-aggressions
She believes employers should devise policies that consider cultural practices (especially around death), access for people who use wheelchairs, and even events like Friday night drinks, which can be difficult to attend for employees who have caring responsibilities.
Newbound’s own firm operates a “deliverables-based” culture, requiring employees to work 24 hours per week in any way they choose to structure those hours.
Will remote work damage women’s careers?
Given the opportunity, studies show most millennial women would choose to work remotely, at least some of the time.
But critics have warned women to “think twice” before opting for remote work, saying that it inhibits progress for workers not visibly present or less engaged in company culture. Women will miss out on those crucial ‘water-cooler moments’ that can build relationships and increase their visibility, they argue.
Most millennials would prefer to work remotely
And while working from home has been a positive experience for some women with disabilities, others have found it difficult if employers didn’t recognise their additional needs. Elaine, an Arab-Australian lawyer with a hearing impairment, says that the remote-working software used by her employers has created barriers she wouldn’t otherwise face in the office.
At work, she can hear people better because she can see them, but in a Microsoft Teams call, for example, it’s harder to differentiate voices.
“Requesting a ‘workplace adjustment’ has been an idealistic process,” she says. “While direct management has been supportive, the organisation is not prioritising my needs.” So far, she has just had to struggle through.
More than anything, the pandemic has demonstrated that rapid change is possible, and Newbound says the onus is now on employers to adapt, or risk losing staff.
“Change or you’re going to be forced to change,” she says. “We’ve always been in an employer’s market, but people are now working out that they can actually a play a part in setting rules [around work]. If employers don’t become more flexible, they’re going to miss out on fantastic talent.”
*name has been changed; other women chose only to use their first names