Women face increased costs as more companies return to office this fall

The costs are financial as well as more intangible.

Video byDara Elasfar
October 29, 2022, 10:11 AM

After two and a half years of working remotely, Lisa*, 34, had to meet with clients in-person for the first time this month. On top of the usual stressors of making a return to an in-person work environment, the consultant was anxious knowing she'd be the only woman walking in.

And she had one more concern particular to only having been seen on camera from the neck-up: she was six months pregnant.

"I was concerned about being judged as not committed to the project, overlooked, ignored," she told ABC News, adding that she was also concerned "about wearing clothes that fit me as well as made me appear professional."

Lisa bought $120 of clothes on Amazon, which she tried on and promptly returned, then spent a couple hours shopping at a department store, where she spent $200. She took more time at home trying on outfits to find what made her feel confident.

In the week leading up to the meeting, she called and emailed the group to make personal connections so they'd get to know her – and hopefully trust her – before her in-person reveal. For the meeting, she "hyper prepared" so her value would be evident and showed up 40 minutes early.

"Ultimately, surprisingly, everything was lovely," she said.

But that relief didn't give her back the time, money and mental energy she'd spent preparing for one in-person meeting. Her experience reflects what many women in corporate America are going through as more workers return to in-person work this fall.

While men and women both face increasing costs of inflation and a struggling economy, as well as a return to costs for commuting, office lunches and child or elder care, women are contending with the extra costs that come with being a woman impacting finances, families and well-being.

The situation for women's finances was already bad, and then came the costs of returning to work

Women's financial health is the worst it has been in the last five years, according to a report released in September by Ellevest, a wealthtech company made by women for women.

That's due to a combination of crunches, Sallie Krawcheck, Ellevest's CEO and founder, explained, including some that impact people of all genders: inflation, a dampened stock market and fears of a possible recession. But those issues impact women more acutely because of preexisting systemic inequalities, including wealth and pay gaps, she said. If you are paid less than a man in a similar role, having to pay more for groceries is going to hurt more.

Additionally, women continue to do a majority of unpaid work, including household labor and caregiving for children and elders.

That was the financial state as more companies asked corporate employees to return to offices this fall.

"There are certain expectations that women should show up looking, you know, with a certain level of gravitas and a certain level of professionalism," Krawcheck said.

"So there's the cost of the clothes; there's the pink tax of the grooming that is so much more expensive; there's the pink tax of the higher dry cleaning for women's clothes; there are all sorts of pink taxes, which cost us more than than they do men at the same time that we're dealing with inflation, which impacts us more than it does men," she said.

Then, she said, add the time it takes to get ready: 15 minutes of hair and makeup a day adds up to a full workweek over the course of a year. Research has continuously shown that women who wear makeup (but of course, the right amount of makeup), benefit from it at work.

There are also domino-effect costs that swirl out from returning to the office, according to Berna Anat, financial educator and hype woman. "RTO" also means returning to happy hours, power lunches and coffee meetings, all of which financially add up – especially if you're feeling too drained at the end of all that to cook dinner, so your takeout bill is going up.

Women are paying more than just time and money to return to office

"Basically, going back to the office for women – and really for anyone – is just now this giant financial burden that we all got a little too comfortable not having over the last couple of years," Anat, whose book "Money Out Loud" is now available for preorder, told ABC News.

Now, people are dealing with the mental shock of those increased costs, she said.

"It also made people sort of be down on themselves, kind of back into that same financial spiral that we're always in all the time, which is, 'Oh, this is hard. It must mean I'm bad at money,'" Anat said.

While money may seem objective, it's heavily tied up with emotions, including shame, guilt and trauma, Anat said.

And on the gender divide, Krawcheck said, "women have had decades of being told that they're really not good with money and they carry that with them," so a time like this can feel extra painful. In this adjustment period, women should give themselves grace and "financial empathy," Anat said.

Returning to office for women and people in underrepresented communities also means returning "to face bias, microaggressions, those insults, those everyday insults that happen that impact us psychologically and cause stress," Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist and executive coach, told ABC News.

While women and people of color have been making gains, white, male people still predominantly run corporate America. Structurally, offices were largely built for men, and couples with kids can run into problems if they're both required to work 9-to-5 from an office, which mostly end up being solved by women.

Returning to in-person discrimination in part explains a racial disparity in willingness to return to offices, according to a 2021 report by Future Forum. While 21% of white knowledge workers in the U.S. said they wanted to return to in-office work full-time, only 3% of Black respondents said the same.

Daily stressors like discrimination, even if subtle, "can worsen any chronic medical illness that you have and certainly trigger certain illnesses," Taylor said.

Many executives say returning to the office is important to maintain company culture.

"Was the culture perfect pre-pandemic? Or was the culture perfect pre-pandemic for white men of a certain age who have a certain pedigree?" Krawcheck said.

How to deal with financial woes this fall

PHOTO: Women Face more Costs Returning to Offices this Fall
Women Face more Costs Returning to Offices this Fall
Getty Images, ABC News Photo Illustration

Despite stereotypes, women are statistically good at handling money, and many are already taking proper steps facing inflation, Krawcheck said, like cutting expenses. Making decisions like that will also help psychologically to feel more in control.

If you're invested in the stock market, "just stay tight and hold on," Anat advised.

"When the markets are all red all the time and the Wall Street bros are yelling at you via Twitter and TikTok that you should panic or buy or sell or crypto or NFTs, hold tight," she said.

At work, while you may not get an OK to work remotely, Anat suggested asking for benefits like commuter or parental stipends.

Companies need to recognize the financial situation and work to meet women, Krawcheck said. Women's top financial goal is taking care of family, while men's is their retirement, the Ellevest report found, which made Krawcheck realize companies that give benefits like 401k matching, but not childcare support, are meeting men's financial needs more so than women's.

There is also power in numbers, the experts said, talking to colleagues and trying collective action, whether it's communicating needs or unionizing.

"I think there's this understanding over the last couple of years that we as the laborers are the ones who often actually have the power," Anat said, pointing to recent union wins, the so-called Great Resignation and companies' apparent desperation to get workers back on-site.

Krawcheck recommended women be aware of the tasks being asked of them once back in the office and "politely decline the opportunity to do the housework" like note-taking that won't lead to promotions and raises.

"There are tasks that you're given at work that are strategic for the company that help generate revenue, that help your boss look good, that help the company drive forward," she said, "and there are things that don't, like buying the birthday cake for Joe in accounting."

Dealing with other woes may take more awareness and advocacy for oneself

Camille*, 30, used to get home from her one-and-a-half hour commute and pour herself a drink. While working remotely, she realized that was an unhealthy mechanism to cope with the exhaustion of a long day in the office, and she stayed sober after giving birth to a daughter this spring.

"I just don't feel the need to even have a drink because I'm generally in a more relaxed state," she told ABC News.

In returning to offices, Taylor said it's important to pay attention to coping mechanisms that may come up with adding back stressors. She also recommended acting proactively to "pay attention to ourselves and our needs," including using PTO days if you have them, getting into strong habits like exercise and healthy eating and making sure to get enough sleep.

But sometimes it takes more drastic measures, as Camille recounted.

This fall, the Manhattan-based advertising agency she works for decided to go from remote to a hybrid in-office schedule. She knew that "wasn't going to be sustainable," not only because of the long commute since she's moved further away, but also because her newborn will only eat if being breastfed.

For the health of herself and her baby, she reached an understanding with her boss that she would not come into the office regularly, although she said had she not been a new mother, she would have been pressured to come in.

As a Black woman, Camille lost hope that corporations will be effective at racial diversity and now only cares about "'diversity' when it comes to lifestyles and how flexible are you in letting me be a mom."

"If it were up to me having to go into the office every day," Camille said, "I honestly think I would just quit my job."

*Names have been changed to maintain privacy.

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