2020 introduced us to Covid-19, to face masks, lockdowns, curfews, hand sanitiser, social distancing and, of course, Zoom! As students, teachers, co-workers, friends and family have come to rely on video-calling to stay in touch, it’s worth exploring how people of different gender use video calls differently, and how this may in turn affect their performance and wellbeing.
First of all, online video-calling exacerbates common gender dynamics in communication: Men tend to take up more space, women are more likely to refrain from speaking and are interrupted way too often. Although Zoom has very handy mute buttons, these do not fix the problem. The bar for women to speak up in conversation is higher than men’s. They also often feel they need to be succinct when speaking. Why? Because women are taught to take up little space. And when they do take up space, they are punished for doing so: Research found that female-identifying executives are deemed less competent when they speak more, whilst male-identifying executives were given higher competence ratings. On Zoom, many women experience the barrier to speak to be greater than in real life – think of situations where a shaky internet connection makes it a bit awkward to raise a point.
But on Zoom we do not only talk with each other, we also look at each other. At least, potentially. Women are more likely than men to switch off their cameras. One explanation for this is that women are multitasking when calling. Generally, women in heterosexual couples take on most of the household and childcare tasks – and when children need to be home-schooled, mums spend up to twenty hours a week more to keep the household running than dads. Another reason is that women feel objectified and sexualised by the male gaze, which may be more bothersome on Zoom than in real life because women are confronted with their own image themselves as well. Male-identifying Zoom users report feeling uncomfortable with being continuously observed. This may be because they’re not used to being subjected to other people’s gaze, whilst women are.
A final interesting observation is that male-identifying Zoomers are way more likely to customise their backgrounds, using landscapes, university logos or the ‘blur function’. It’s been suggested that this is because most men prefer clear distinctions between office and domestic spaces. As the pandemic has forced people to work from home, the work-home divide is blurred. It must be noted, though, that for many women the work-home divide was already blurred before Covid-19. It’s a well-known phenomenon that women think about household-related tasks – Did I take tonight’s food out of the freezer? When is Tommy getting his MMR jab? – all day long, also at work. Perhaps they gave up on the work-home divide a long time ago. Working from home does present a small benefit to women, by the way: At home it’s not as bloody cold as in the office.
In sum, Zoom enlarges gender dynamics in communication that already existed before we started video-calling. The way we use Zoom also draws attention to gender norms, such as women doing most of the household work and the male gaze. Perhaps now is an especially good time to reflect on these norms. Do you want tips to support female-identifying Zoom partners to speak up? Have a look here. A final note: As is often the case, this entry relies on studies that only distinguish two genders: male and female. It would be interesting to learn more about how non-binary people use Zoom.