Meetings and conferences in front of the webcam have been part of everyday business life since the beginning of the corona pandemic. Apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype have long established themselves everywhere - but not without consequences for the behavior and well-being of employees.
A report by the non-profit organization Catalyst shows that video conferencing tools are affecting the visibility of women in everyday work. According to a survey in the US, 45 percent of female executives have difficulty speaking in virtual meetings. If they do, every fifth woman feels ignored. A majority of the female respondents, therefore, believe that their prospects for promotion in this new work environment are poor.
Video tools ignore women's voices
How women appear in meetings is also determined by technical aspects. New studies by the University of Magdeburg show that women's voices in video conferences are perceived as less competent and charismatic than men's voices. The reason for this is the strong compression of the voice signals to be transmitted. In a press release, Ingo Siegert, head of the study, writes: "So far, audio processing has been working with predetermined frequency ranges that do not always take into account the vocal differences between the sexes - especially the higher voices of women."
The study concludes that this technical discrimination contributes to women being perceived as less convincing. Especially in video conferences, where the image conditions are often suboptimal, the effect of the voice is all the more important.
We have been taught that a good girl is well-behaved and careful. So women pay a price when they speak loudly in meetings.
Assertive and unsympathetic
But that's not all: psychological effects that cause injustice in communication existed long before home office became the norm. Leonie Renouil is a diversity officer at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and has been dealing with gender-specific stereotypes for years. "We have internalized classic role models of women and men that lead to distortions of perception," says the expert. That is why the same behavior would be assessed differently in women and men - the so-called double standards. Women in management positions who are talkative and assertive are often classified as unsympathetic. Renouil explains, “We have been taught that a good girl is well-behaved and careful. So women pay a price when they speak loudly in meetings. "
These internalized stereotypes and different socialization of the sexes impact women's behavior in everyday business life. Leonie Renouil explains that women tend to be more participatory and more cautious than their male colleagues. However, these leadership qualities often have too little space in companies that work in the Anglo-American result- and time-oriented style. "When the loudest person has the most influence in meetings because a decision is needed quickly," she says, "we can't incorporate some valuable leadership qualities that women often bring with them."
Men set the tone
The volume and effect of the voice were already discussed in Margaret Thatcher's time. Back then it was said that a woman had to speak deep and harsh to be influential. The voices of women are not the problem, Leonie Renouil clarifies: "If we perceive women to be less effective in meetings, it is mainly due to the fact that they are outnumbered." She explains that the male majority, figuratively speaking, make the music and therefore female participants can only contribute to a limited extent. Any statements made by a woman would be traced back to her gender if the female proportion did not make up at least a third of the group. So if a woman brings up an argument in a male-dominated meeting, it is directly associated with her femininity and is often not assessed objectively. According to this year's Gender Intelligence Report, women in middle management in Switzerland have a share of 23 percent. "So I'm not surprised that women use less speaking time," says Renouil.
When the loudest or most powerful at the table is no longer in charge, minorities dare to share their opinion.
The psychological cost of video conferencing
In addition to the voice, virtual sessions also influence the non-verbal behavior of the participants. A Stanford study comes to the conclusion that women avoid non-verbal signals in virtual space for fear of appearing dubious. This means that the mental stress of video conferences is significantly higher for women than for men: Women suffer more from tiredness and exhaustion after video conferences. Scientists attribute this primarily to the fact that women are less able to cope with observing themselves all day. This comes from a fear of making a bad impression. As a result, the psychological costs of video conferencing are unevenly distributed across society.
Make women heard
Whether in virtual or physical space - a change in the working atmosphere is needed, says Leonie Renouil. The primary aim is to change the environment in such a way that it is tailored to everyone's needs. «We have to get away from the often male working world. This requires both structural and cultural changes, ”she says.
In addition to recruiting more female executives and creating gender-sensitive processes in human resources, the diversity specialist wants to change the rules in meetings. Studies show that women have more influence when decisions are made on the basis of consensus. "When the loudest or most powerful at the table is no longer in charge, minorities dare to share their opinion," says Renouil. At the cultural level, the first step is to make managers and employees aware of inequalities in the workplace and to convey leadership practices that do not exclude anyone. For example, Advance, the trade association for gender equality, holds workshops. The next step is then to recognize discrimination in real situations and, above all, to react to it. Women can also support each other by referring to statements from colleagues or pointing out misconduct in meetings.
Leonie Renouil emphasizes that such measures not only contribute to a better working atmosphere but also have advantages for the competitiveness of companies: "If some of the workforce cannot share their ideas, valuable knowledge and information is lost."