Organizational scholarship on virtuality and women’s career equality are growing research streams relevant to the changing nature of work. Yet these streams are underintegrated, creating a lack of nuanced understanding of how virtuality impacts gender equality. We review findings from 100 articles and synthesize two main research perspectives to develop an integrative framework of virtuality’s mixed effects for women. Studies grounded in person–environment fit theory have tended to emphasize positive effects, while those based on social role theory have examined both positive and negative effects. A critical insight from our review is that while growing virtuality holds promise for advancing gender equality by enabling opportunities for women to overcome persistent career challenges, it may simultaneously inhibit their success. However, few studies have examined these dynamics together. Our review illuminates the career-enhancing and career-damaging mechanisms through which virtuality–gender interactions concurrently improve and undermine women’s equality outcomes. These dual mechanisms create three virtuality tensions for women between: (a) work–nonwork boundary control and interference, (b) enhanced and reduced job opportunities, and (c) social integration and exclusion. We offer a research agenda that attends to both sides of these tensions, identifies their interdependencies, and examines how they operate over time.
For decades, researchers have sought to identify factors in the work environment that influence women’s career equality, defined as “the degree to which women have equal access to and participation in career opportunities, and experience equal intrinsic and extrinsic work and nonwork outcomes compared to men” (Kossek, Su, & Wu, 2017: 228). One of the most significant changes in the workplace is the growth in virtuality, where employees are increasingly dispersed (i.e., not working face-to-face) and engage in technology-mediated communication. However, research on the implications of rising virtuality at work for gender equality is fragmented across different organizational fields (e.g., management, psychology, information systems, communications) and virtual work disciplines (e.g., telecommuting, virtual teamwork, computer-mediated work) (Raghuram, Hill, Gibbs, & Maruping, 2019). This lack of conceptual and empirical integration is critical to address, as virtuality likely will continue to expand at an accelerated rate (Alexander, De Smet, Langstaff, & Ravid, 2021; Dua, Cheng, Lund, De Smet, Robinson, & Sanghvi, 2020; Lund et al., 2021). Yet, its potential effects on women’s careers is uncertain, and there is evidence that the increase in remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic significantly exacerbated career inequality for women (Kossek, Dumas, Piszczek, & Allen, 2021; Shockley, Clark, Dodd, & King, 2021).
Although extant research has suggested mixed effects of increased virtuality for women’s career equality, a holistic understanding is missing because individual studies have tended to emphasize either negative or positive effects, drawing on only one of two prevalent theoretical views: person–environment (P–E) fit theory (Kristof‐Brown, Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005) or social role theory (Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000). For instance, while some studies have shown that working at home may fit women’s tendency to prioritize work–life balance, increasing their participation in the labor force (Chung & van der Horst, 2018, 2020; Costantini, Dickert, Sartori, & Ceschi, 2021), others have found that it may also increase their work–family conflict because of the greater family role expectations women generally face (e.g., Falkenberg, Lindfors, Chandola, & Head, 2020; Hammer, Neal, Newsom, Brockwood, & Colton, 2005). As another example, while women’s tendency to adopt more collaborative managerial styles may be beneficial in computer-mediated communication (Adrianson, 2001; Lind, 1999; Lowden & Hostetter, 2012), the reduced social cues in this context may strengthen biased perceptions of women as lower in competence and achievement orientation, resulting in less favorable task assignments (Christofides, Islam, & Desmarais, 2009).
To clarify the confusion in the literature and advance research on the gender equality implications of increased virtuality at work, we conducted a comprehensive review to integrate these mixed effects and theoretical views and propose a future research agenda. We synthesize virtuality’s effects on women’s career equality across disciplines following Raghuram et al.’s (2019) recommendation to theorize the underlying effects of virtuality’s two core dimensions: (a) degree of dispersion, defined as “different forms of distance between participants in virtual work arrangements, including the extent to which virtual workers are distributed across space and time”; and (b) degree of technology dependence, defined as the “extent to which individuals rely on communication tools and the types of communication tools (e.g., email, text, and social media) they use in their work” (Raghuram et al., 2019: 6).
Drawing on these two dimensions, our goal is to provide a systematic interdisciplinary review of the gendered implications of different degrees of virtuality in all jobs, not only those more typically classified as “virtual work,” which are generally limited to knowledge workers. Historically, researchers have tended to dichotomize virtuality as solely in-person or face-to-face, versus solely virtual. Consistent with more recent conceptualizations of virtuality as a continuum (Gilson, Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen, & Hakonen, 2015), we argue that contexts vary in their degree of virtuality, ranging from primarily face-to-face work (e.g., a manager in a grocery store) to solely virtual work (e.g., a member of a globally distributed engineering team who fully depends on technology to communicate). Thus, we assume that most jobs have at least some degree of virtuality (e.g., even the grocery store manager exchanges texts with vendors about orders), and most individuals engage in a combination of virtual and face-to-face work. By recognizing virtuality as an “increasingly common element of conducting business” and “the norm for many employees” across occupations (Makarius & Larson, 2017: 159), we hope to encourage researchers to broaden their thinking to consider virtuality’s gendered effects in many occupational settings.
We propose an integrative framework that explicates the varied impacts of different subdimensions of dispersion and technology dependence to reveal their countervailing influences underlying what we refer to as the double-edged sword of increasing virtuality for women’s career equality. A critical insight uncovered in our analysis is that while virtuality holds great promise for advancing women’s career equality by enabling their success at work (increased opportunities for job access and career advancement) and in life (enhanced work–family balance and well-being), ironically, it can simultaneously inhibit these same outcomes. We also identify the career-enhancing and career-damaging mechanisms through which virtuality–gender interactions concurrently improve and undermine women’s work and nonwork outcomes. These dynamics create three tensions for women’s career equality between: (a) work–nonwork boundary control and interference, (b) enhanced and reduced job opportunities, and (c) social integration and exclusion. Finally, we highlight contingencies that may tip the balance of each tension toward positive or negative gender career equality effects, and conclude by proposing a future research agenda. Our review redirects management scholars to focus on better understanding how organizations can leverage the benefits of increased virtuality while mitigating its adverse effects.