Picture this: It’s pre-pandemic and you’re sitting in a work meeting. You’ve diligently prepared your notes and you’re excited to present your ideas. Instead, you spend the entire meeting trying — and failing — to get a word in.
Fast forward to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of staring at your coworkers from across a conference room table, you’re at home speaking to them via video. But it’s still the same story: When you attempt to talk, you’re cut off multiple times. Each time this happens you smile awkwardly. The discussion continues and you wonder if anyone heard you.
Unfortunately, the new realities of working from home wrought by the coronavirus pandemic haven’t yielded new, fairer standards for workplace etiquette.
“It was a problem already in our old-school workplace paradigms: Women were being mansplained and over-talked,” says Kim Churches, the CEO of the gender equity organization American Association of University Women (AAUW).
For Sally McConnell-Ginet, professor emerita of linguistics at Cornell University, much of the issue stems from the ways in which we respond to and evaluate what women say and how they say it. In any setting, whether in-person or online, men and women can be doing the same thing but be judged differently because of the traditional power structures of our society.
For example, a woman might be expected to be collaborative and only speak when called on. Or, a woman who speaks in the same manner as a man during a Zoom meeting could be interpreted as pushy by her colleagues but the man could be seen as having a great idea, explains McConnell-Ginet.
Churches, for her part, points to lags in internet connectivity, which can freeze the meeting and make it difficult to know what was said and who spoke last. This technological challenge can contribute to women being left out of the conversation, she explains.
It’s up to all of us in the meeting to make sure women’s voices are heard because everyone loses out when sexism occurs, says Dr. Sarah J. Brazaitis, an associate professor in the department of organization and leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Brazaitis, who has a master’s and PhD in counseling psychology, teaches students methods to help people feel more satisfied and perform better at work. After graduation, her students go on to get jobs teaching these processes to workplaces. Brazaitis focuses on the social forces that hold back employees due to their race and gender. She points to research that shows the best performing groups and teams are those where, by and large, the members of the team speak pretty equally.
In Churches’ mind, when sexism shuts women up or judges them unfairly for their contributions to a meeting, we miss the diverse perspectives that are critical to a team’s success. Women have viewpoints that men can’t replicate, says Churches.
“We’re all learning in real time that we can work elsewhere and still be strong colleagues and still deliver great product,” says Churches.
Here’s how to be an ally to women in the workplace, even via a screen.
1. Leaders must set the meeting’s tone
Whoever’s leading the meeting has the most power in the room, and as such, should ensure women’s voices are being heard, says Churches.
One way to do so is by identifying the problem directly. Recently, Brazaitis led a meeting over Zoom for her master’s and PhD students. The class has 27 students, with only five men. But when Brazaitis broke the class into groups to discuss the material and told each group to pick someone to report out the findings, every single one of the people presenting were men.
After each group went, Brazaitis told her class that she was happy to hear their input, but she also wanted to hear from the women. Like Brazaitis, as a leader you can speak up when you see women’s voices aren’t being heard.
McConnell-Ginet suggests similarly that leaders should ask women questions and have them elaborate on their thoughts. This can help open the door for women who may be interrupted frequently by their colleagues.
You can also encourage people to use video conferencing platforms’ hand raising functions to prevent people from talking over one another, explains Churches. Zoom has this feature, as does Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams.
Churches also often makes note of the race and gender of the people she talks to, whether she’s leading a meeting or talking to people outside AAUW, to ensure she taps into a diversity of voices.
“We have a tendency as human beings to go with what we know,” she says. By consciously tracking who she talks to she can ensure she fights against this bias.
Leaders should also set meeting norms, says Brazaitis. For example, before the meeting you can say (and also establish formally via email), “We need to put norms in place because now we’re all having these online meetings. Let’s have standards that we won’t interrupt one another and each person will have equal time to speak.” You can also add that each person should manage their own speaking time, so it’s clear that the responsibility is also on each team member to not over talk.
2. Male colleagues need to speak up
There are ways for men to help, too. Speak up when you notice women in the workplace being interrupted or talked down to. You likely won’t take flak for it because men tend to be expected to speak up in meetings without consequences (such as being viewed unfavorably by their coworkers), says Brazaitis.
McConnell-Ginet agrees, explaining that when a man intervenes if a woman is being interrupted, his colleagues may view him as considerate because of gendered norms and expectations. On the other hand, if a woman does the same thing, she may be judged as overly pushy or a “whiny feminist.”
What’s more, she believes people constantly put the responsibility on women to fix the problems they have in the workplace, such as suggesting they change how they say something. Instead, an ally can help repeat what a woman has said or ask for them to expand on their thoughts as this can help improve the chances that a woman can present her ideas, says McConnell-Ginet.
But these comments have to be thoughtful, says Brazaitis. For example, she’s heard well-intentioned men acknowledge that they’re interrupting, apologize, but then say they want to allow their coworkers to speak. This kind of remark implies it’s up to men to give women permission to speak.
“It is her right [to speak] as a member of the team, not a special privilege being granted to her on behalf of her male colleague,” says Brazaitis.
Instead, you should note that you feel like you’ve been taking up too much air time and would really like to hear what others have to say, perhaps calling out other co-workers by name with a nod to a previous comment they made. For example, you can say “Sarah, you had a great point about customer satisfaction earlier. Do you have more to say on that?”
Churches, for her part, says that when men speak up in this way, even with a simple statement like, “Before we break, we didn’t hear from Sarah, and I’d really like to see if she has additional thoughts,” it shows they care about helping norms shift.
3. Women should support other women
Even though it shouldn’t be on women to make work meetings a supportive place, there’s strength in numbers.
That’s because there’s power in women supporting their fellow women as they can face significant barriers in getting people to hear them, says McConnell-Ginet. A group approach can work better than a single woman pointing out she was disrupted during a meeting. After all, women are underrepresented at every level within the workplace so banding together is especially important.
For Brazaitis, it’s more effective for other people to point out that a woman is being interrupted as the group will be more likely to view it as a legitimate problem and not something the woman caused.
While Brazaitis acknowledges this strategy can work against women, she thinks the benefits outweigh any potential negative outcomes.
“I don’t think it is particularly problematic for women to speak up for other women…it might be that they get labeled trouble makers or ‘they always stick up for each other’ type of thing, but better to advocate in groups then solo regardless,” says Brazaitis.
So if you notice a woman being ignored during your next work call, try to pluck up the courage to say something. Or, better yet, see if you can get other women to join in too.
“A lot of times we’re not the only woman on a Zoom call. So if we’re afraid that we’re not being heard, we also need to be upstanders and allies to our fellow women,” says Churches.
If you see a woman being talked over, you can say “Hold on Tom, Tina was trying to say something and I think it would be important for us to hear her thoughts,” suggests Churches.
This kind of language can immediately stop the interruption in its tracks instead of allowing it to carry on.
4. Women should be advocates for themselves
While it’s not up to women to make online interactions a welcoming space for themselves, there are some things they can do to boost their chances of being heard during online meetings, says Brazaitis.
First, women can prepare. This doesn’t just mean you have new ideas to share and are ready to update everyone on your work progress (though, you should be doing that too). You should also be thinking about how you’ll present yourself during the meeting.
Lighting is important. Make sure you’re not backlit so you can be visible to other participants, suggests Churches. If you’re already being talked over, you don’t also want to be physically invisible on the call.
You should also anticipate problems with internet connectivity. When online meetings suffer from internet lags, someone may accidentally talk over a woman because of the bad connection. Our instinct may be to stop talking but Churches says it’s better to finish your thought so you can get the entire idea out.
These setbacks are more likely to crop up as virtual meetings become more socially accepted and routine, so it’s even more urgent that everyone makes sure women’s skills, ideas, and contributions are well represented, says Churches.
“Women make up half of the labor force…Our ideas, thoughts, analysis, and expertise are valued and this is, frankly, about economic security and moving forward in an unprecedented time,” says Churches. “We should care about this because if we’re going to continue to be a productive nation, we need to do everything we can to remove the barriers, bias, and discrimination holding women back in every venue, including now in video conferencing.”