Is there gender bias in videoconferencing?

2020 05 06 18 44 2538 Doctor Mask Workstation 400

The migration from in-person meetings to videoconferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic could be giving men an advantage over women in communicating their ideas and displaying credibility, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. But there are solutions to address this imbalance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in exponential growth in videoconferencing platforms. During the week of March 14 to 21, the weekly average of Zoom downloads was 14 times greater than the weekly average during the fourth quarter of 2019 in the U.S. Other platforms, like Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, also experienced huge growth in utilization.

The rapid growth of videoconferencing has enabled teams to stay connected during social distancing, but some difficulties have emerged. One of the more subtle is a natural gender imbalance in communication that has factored into which participants are more prominent in these virtual meetings, according to the authors of the JACR paper, Dr. Sherry Wang of the University of Utah and Dr. Marilyn Roubidoux of the University of Michigan (May 22, 2020, JACR).

Wang and Roubidoux cited previous research noting that men tend to speak for longer periods of time during any kind of meeting, with women speaking about two-thirds the length of men. The same research found that the length of time speaking translated to who earns the most influence and credit in a meeting.

They also cited a report released in 2019 by McKinsey & Company with that surveyed 68,000 employees from 329 companies, noting that 50% of women reported being interrupted or spoken over. A total of 30% said others had taken credit for their ideas.

Women rely to a greater extent on nonverbal cues in their communication than do men, making videoconferencing sessions less beneficial for women, state the authors. Moreover, the inherent audio and video lags with videoconferencing have produced scenarios where men are more likely to speak first or to interrupt compared with women participants.

Still another challenge according to Wang and Roubidoux is that men's approach to communication is generally one of a power dynamic in which they try to assert authority, while women's approach to communication is generally one of a rapport dynamic in which they are trying to hear other views.

Given that videoconferencing sessions are likely to be integrated into daily professional life, the authors offer several ways to remedy the gender gap that can come into play in virtual communication.

One solution is for the chat function in sessions to be used more extensively to allow feedback from all participants. This serves to not interrupt the flow of the meeting and allows others to provide feedback and possibly reinforce the thoughts that one person may provide in the chat box.

Another strategy is to increase the use of emojis in videoconferencing sessions, as they serve as verbal cues for participants. The authors cited a 2019 report on emoji use by Adobe that found 91% of those surveyed use emojis to signal support to the person who is talking. The report also found 58% of those in Gen Zers and 48% of millennials stated that emojis best express their emotions, compared with 34% of Gen Xers and 37% of baby boomers.

Another tactic for bridging the gender gap in videoconferencing is to encourage more women to participate in videoconferences and to minimize interruptions when they speak, thus creating a more supportive environment, Wang and Roubidoux wrote. They also recommend that there should be a zero-tolerance policy for any form of discrimination on any videoconference session.

Apart from women, other individuals who are less vocal in videoconferencing sessions should be encouraged by the meeting host or moderator to provide their input to ensure that they are not overlooked in the meeting.

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