Why Women Face Different Standards on Zoom and What to do About It

Research from The Harris Poll shows 39 percent of women, but just 25 percent of men, turn off video during Zoom calls. That’s a fairly significant difference. In addition, when they turn on video, women are more likely than men to prepare (do their hair, change clothes or clean visible workspaces). Also, they are more likely to mute themselves, in addition to disabling the video, while multitasking.

We asked professors of communication and business management:

  1. Why are women more likely to disable video and/or microphones?
  2. How can women navigate working, home schooling children and doing much of the domestic work?

Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, clinical professor of communication, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Despite decades of progress, business still treats women differently than men. This shows up in verbal and nonverbal communication. On Zoom, these verbal issues are exacerbated. And while it can be uncomfortable for anyone to jump in and speak over others, it’s much more comfortable for men. Staying muted avoids this potential uncomfortable confrontation.

Similar to business, society has different expectations of women. As a result, women tend to be much more critical of their hair, makeup and clothing. They may think if they don’t look as they would in the office, they will lose credibility.

Meanwhile, men working from home are not judged, as women are, for looking casual or unkempt. While women may be placing some expectations on themselves, in a world where women still are under a glass ceiling, going the extra step likely is seen as a small price to pay.

Women should avoid turning off the camera. Remember, others likely are paying closer attention to their own appearance. Certainly, women should do what makes them most comfortable, but it isn’t nearly as critical as it may feel.

On the other hand, if your video is off, people might imagine you are doing your nails or making dinner. Without clear communication stimuli, people make up things. When that happens, it’s never in our favor.

Dr. Allison Weidhaas, associate professor, Rider University

Historically, women were muted in business conversations, so it's not surprising that we are seeing this in virtual meetings.

In addition, as women try to perform as consummate professionals, they also are more likely to balance family needs. They might be muting mics and turning off video to avoid the intrusion of a child or an ill-placed toy.

Also, employers often perceive motherhood as negatively impacting female employees’ work. As a result, women may choose not to show their home environment via Zoom.

 When leaders lead by example perceptions change. We need to see more female and male leaders on camera, showing their imperfect homes and lives. This won't result in an immediate shift in ideas of what women’s homes and personal appearances should look like. It could, though, gradually let people feel better about being on camera and seeing realistic spaces, rather than picture-perfect Zoom backgrounds.

In the meantime, be visible during virtual meetings, ladies! People need to see and hear you. It's easier to relate to and respect the person we can see and hear. And we need women's voices in corporate America. So, switch on cameras and microphones!

Dr. Meagan Brock Baskin, assistant professor, Collins College of Business, University of Tulsa

It’s possible women are turning off cameras and mics because they don’t feel they look presentable, or the noise in their environment might indicate they have competing demands. This has implications for how they are perceived in the workplace.

Society has culturally derived expectations of women and men, masculinity and femininity, mothers and fathers. It is likely that women feel if they attend meetings without ‘preparing,’ they are violating cultural expectations and may be judged.

My research suggests that even in a virtual workplace, appearance is a strong predictor of supervisor evaluations of performance and commitment.

In light of all this, disengaging audio and video may work to an employee’s detriment, unfortunately. When others in a meeting can’t see or hear you it creates ambiguity and uncertainty about what you’re doing. Research suggests that the more ambiguity and uncertainty in an environment, the more likely we are to rely on culturally derived stereotypes when forming impressions and making decisions about others.

Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon, assistant professor, Maryville University

Women know they are judged for their appearance. Most have received damaging messaging that their worth lies in their looks. Therefore, it is not surprising they may choose to avoid scrutiny on Zoom.

Next, online gender inequalities exist because they are embedded within social structures. For example, women are responsible for more of the domestic work in the U.S. Thus, they may be multitasking more, keeping their video off while trying to juggle work and taking care of children, who are attending school virtually.

Unfortunately, although the standards are unfair, appearances matter and there may be financial costs to not looking one’s best. Image often is perceived as reality. If your camera is off, you are missing a huge part of communication and an opportunity for added presence.

In addition, there often is a perception that if the camera is off you may be hiding something. This doesn’t mean you need to put on professional clothes and activate video for every Zoom call, but do so for important meetings. Don’t worry about a child/animal/partner interrupting. Simply let others know, go off camera for a minute and manage the situation.

Finally, find ways that make the camera image objectively look better. These include inexpensive ring lights and camera positioning.

George Bradley is PR manager of Circa Interactive