Bank of England economist Catherine Mann says mothers could be particularly vulnerable.
Women who work mostly from home risk seeing their careers stall now workers are returning to the office in large numbers, according to Bank of England (BoE) economist Catherine Mann.
She said office interaction was vital to advance in companies, but many women were still tied to home working.
Ms Mann said it was a particular issue for mothers facing school disruptions and difficulty accessing childcare.
Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak warned about young people’s careers.
The chancellor said he doubted his banking career would have been successful if he had started it in virtual meetings, and that being in the office helped build skills.
Ms Mann, a member of the BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee that sets interest rates, said online communication was unable to replicate the spontaneous office conversations that were important for recognition and advancement in many workplaces.
She told an event hosted by Financial News magazine: “Virtual platforms are way better than they than they were even five years ago. But the extemporaneous, spontaneity – those are hard to replicate in a virtual setting.”
Difficulty accessing childcare and pandemic-related disruption to schooling meant many women were continuing to work from home, while it had been easier for men to return to the office.
“There is the potential for two tracks,” she said. “There’s the people who are on the virtual track and people who are on a physical track. And I do worry that we will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately,” she said.
Ms Mann was an economics professor and chief economist at investment bank Citi and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, before joining the BoE in September.
Businesswoman Justine Roberts, co-founder of the Mumsnet website, agreed that there was a risk women’s careers could suffer from not being in the office. But it was up to companies to be aware of this.
But the flipside, she told the BBC, was that the flexibility of home working was a huge benefit to women, and mothers in particular. Presenteeism and long-hours culture had been eroded by new ways of working.
“Let’s not forget that one of the best things to come out of [the pandemic crisis] is the ability to work flexibly,” especially for mothers juggling childcare and school runs, she said.
Last month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said British businesses reported that on average 60% of their staff were fully back at their normal place of work.
However, proportions vary widely by sector. In professional services, 34% of staff are in the office, 24% are fully working from home, and 35% are doing a mix, the ONS said.
And separate ONS data showed a slightly higher percentage of male workers than females worked from home for at least some of the time in late October.
Previous ONS analysis showed women were more likely than men to say working from home allowed them more time to work, with fewer distractions. But men said working from home helped them come up with new ideas, while women found it a hindrance.