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Out of sight, out of mind? Remote working damages young women’s careers

LONDON — If working from home with six relatives isn’t hard enough, try doing it from a bedroom you share with your younger sister.

The perks of remote working were short-lived for 21-year-old Emma Chau whose entry to the world of work has been largely from her bedroom, after spending just one month in the office.

“I want to come across as professional but because there’s so many of us using the same WiFi, sometimes it cuts out. It’s frustrating. So I miss out on bits of meetings because my Zoom’s crashed,” said Ms. Chau, a marketing assistant.

Almost half of British employees did some work from home last year due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, which has been particularly disruptive for young women from ethnic minorities who are under-represented in professional settings.

Now that chance encounters with colleagues in the cafeteria have diminished, many young people say they are struggling to find their feet in the workplace.

“When you’re in the office you can run into people when they’re making a tea or something and quickly chat about anything career-wise,” British-Chinese Ms. Chau told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It was nice to be able to speak to the senior team directly and not feel like there was a barrier there. But obviously, now we’re online, it’s hard to fit into people’s schedules. I don’t want to constantly bombard them with emails.”

As a daughter of immigrants with no industry contacts, Ms. Chau is grateful to have a job at a time when one in six young people have stopped working due to the pandemic, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

But with six months to go before her graduate contract ends, figuring out her next career move has been daunting.

“Working from home has made things trickier in terms of getting the support to figure out what career path to take and connecting with the right people, especially coming from an under-represented group,” said Ms. Chau.

Only 1.5% of about 3.7 million business leaders are from a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, according to a 2020 report by the Trades Union Congress, a federation representing unions in England and Wales, although ethnic minorities account for 14% of the population.

Climbing the career ladder is hard for many young BAME workers who tend to rely on the physical workplace to network, said Nike Folayan, co-founder of the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers.

“It’s more difficult in a virtual world. You haven’t got the contacts and reaching out to people is really difficult,” said Ms. Folayan, who has been an engineer for nearly two decades.

“People don’t talk to you if they don’t need to. The opportunity for growth and progression has really reduced.”

Young workers are also missing out on learning unspoken rules like how to dress or make professional small talk, said Isabel Farchy, founder of the Creative Mentor Network.

“It’s a very difficult time for young people, especially those who are coming out of university,” said Sonya Barlow, 28, founder of LMF Network, which aims to bring more women into the tech industry.

Ms. Barlow, who is of South Asian heritage, said she was shocked to receive more than 800 applications for her recent mentoring round, mostly from young women of color—a jump from 150 applicants in 2020.

“They were saying, ‘We don’t know what to do about our future. We don’t know how to enter a workplace remotely because we’ve never been taught it’,” said Ms. Barlow.

“It’s a whole generation of lost talent.”

Ms. Barlow, who launched a consultancy during the pandemic while living with seven relatives, said she used a virtual background because she did not want investors or clients thinking less of her due to her working environment.

Black-British engineer Ms. Folayan said projecting the right image is important for ethnic minority workers, especially if they already stick out due to their race, religion, or come from a lower socioeconomic background.

She said her corporate attire in the office, down to the way she wore her hair, was intentional but at-home video calls have created additional stress for many Black women.

“There are kids running around. This is not the presentation I want people to see, even though this is who I am,” she said.

“It just impacts productivity because normally you perform your best when you’re feeling quite confident in yourself. It boils down to people not feeling included from the start and this just magnifies the situation.”

Managers need to ensure young workers are not falling through the cracks, said Dee Sekar, Diversity and Inclusion Director at legal research firm Chambers and Partners.

“You can have people in the same organization … who may not have broadband access or limited broadband access, and you may have some people in the senior leadership team who are looking out from their mansion,” said Ms. Sekar.

Nearly one in 10 British families had no computer or tablet at home at the start of the pandemic, according to estimates from the country’s media regulator Ofcom.

“Organizations need to be on the front foot. Having an inclusive digital workplace is something we need to be doing now, not waiting till we come out of lockdown,” Ms. Sekar said.

For 23-year-old software engineer Ife Ojomo, remote working has made her work twice as hard to be seen and heard—even starting a podcast at work so she could meet senior staff.

“Sometimes when I sit in the wider company meetings, I’m so so lost—it’s difficult to keep track of all the changes as the company is so big. However, I think with every challenge is an opportunity,” she said.

“This means you have to be a lot more proactive than if you were in the office, which can be taxing at times. My advice to anyone starting a job remotely is to be as visible as possible. Volunteer for things. Turn your cameras on.” — Lin Taylor/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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