Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, boundaries between work and nonwork life have been severely disrupted for many working adults. This has occurred due to things like the sudden switch to remote work and lack of available childcare. As a result, many women have left the workforce due to increased responsibilities at home during this time. This finding is concerning and has received widespread attention.
However, far less attention has been paid to the adaptations made by highly career-invested women who remained in the workforce despite these boundary disruptions. These experiences are especially important in jobs where women are under-represented, such as in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) and others (e.g., medicine).
BOUNDARY MANAGEMENT AMONG STEM WOMEN
Researchers (Kossek et al., 2021) surveyed 763 women working in STEM and related fields about their experiences managing the work-nonwork boundary disruptions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results of the survey showed that STEM women often adapted to boundary disruptions by using “professional image management” techniques. Primarily, women either engaged in “concealing,” in which they attempted to hide their nonwork life from coworkers (e.g., blurring the background of a video call), or “revealing,” in which women purposely shared aspects of their nonwork life with coworkers (e.g., not trying to “hide” children when on a zoom call). With the “revealing” technique, women may have been showing to their organization those aspects of integration that had been hidden pre-pandemic in an effort to facilitate organizational change.
Another way in which women adapted to boundary disruptions was by engaging in different forms of “role sacrifice.” This refers to disengaging from either work or nonwork responsibilities when it seemed that all responsibilities could not be met. There were three main types of role sacrifice: (a) “trading off” one role’s tasks in order to be able to do the other role’s tasks; (b) mentally disconnecting from a role; and (c) in some extreme cases, abandoning a role’s duties in part or entirely.
WORKPLACE STRUCTURAL AND SOCIAL SUPPORT
There were two key contextual factors of the workplace that were associated with how women adapted to disrupted boundaries—structural support and social support. Structural support refers to the adoption of new policies like increased flexibility regarding work location or schedule. Social support is when colleagues respect or recognize the increased nonwork demands.
Having (or lacking) structural or social support influenced the extent to which women engaged in the different professional image management and role sacrifice strategies. For example, women with better structural support were less likely to engage in image management or role sacrifice techniques.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The researchers suggest several practical implications of this study that may help reduce work-nonwork role conflict among women in STEM. First, the findings highlight the need for organizations to offer adequate support to women due to the increased workloads and career barriers they face during this time. Additionally, the researchers suggest that organizations should be aware of the importance of choice for women in managing boundaries. In other words, not every woman will benefit from the same boundary management techniques. Instead, women should be free to choose those that are best suited to their needs and organizational support likely plays an important facilitative role here.
Kossek, E. E., Dumas, T. L., Piszczek, M. M., & Allen, T. D. (2021). Pushing the boundaries: A qualitative study of how stem women adapted to disrupted work–nonwork boundaries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(11), 1615-1629.