Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Why women don’t speak up on Zoom calls - and why that’s a problem

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Almost half (45%) of US women business leaders surveyed in June said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. Image: Stocksy

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Women are systematically seen as less authoritative, study shows.
  • Gender biases still shape the rules of social engagement.
  • Changing the environment in the room - rather than changing women's behaviour - should be the goal.

Diversity efforts may have given women a seat at the table – or, in the context of the pandemic, a place on the Zoom call – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a voice.

With working from home now the norm for many, a growing body of research is showing that it’s not become a leveller for meetings.

Almost half (45%) of US women business leaders surveyed in June said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, while one-in-five women felt they’d actually been ignored on such calls.

Researchers at Brigham Young University in the US found last year that the gender dynamics shutting down women remained prevalent, even in the most well-intentioned settings.

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“Women are systematically seen as less authoritative,” Jessica Preece, associate professor in political science at BYU, told BYU Magazine.

“And their influence is systematically lower. And they’re speaking less. And when they’re speaking up, they’re not being listened to as much, and they are being interrupted more.”

So what’s going on?

Women ‘less influential’

Preece and her colleagues examined the female experience in a male-dominated collegiate accounting programme, in which women were typically enrolled with better grade point averages and more leadership experience than their male counterparts.

Students pass through the programme on teams, and administrators wanted to know how to best build these groups.

In teams where women were outnumbered, the researchers discovered they were routinely seen as the least competent and influential in the group.

The problem is not necessarily intentional bias or misogyny. It is instead a systemic problem with society that often sees cultural norms and gendered messages shaping the rules of engagement, explained Preece.

We have been “slowly socialized over years to discount” female expertise and perspectives, she said.

“It’s not women who are broken; it’s society that’s broken,” she added. “I’d like to see us focus on training people to be – and creating systems that are – supportive of women who speak up.”

This means the goal needs to be changing the environment in the room, actual or virtual, rather than women themselves – so that they are empowered and listened to.

“We have lots of learning and unlearning to do.”

Towards gender parity

Gender parity can affect whether or not economies and societies thrive, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 - particularly important as countries seek to build back better after the coronavirus pandemic.

McKinsey Global Institute’s 2015 Power of Parity report estimated that advancing women’s equality could add $13 trillion to global growth by 2025.

The Forum’s report saw improvement in educational attainment, and health and survival, with the gender gap closing by 96.1% and 95.7% respectively.

Gender parity education work employment health
Health and educational attainment improved in 2020. Image: WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2020

Women have been disproportionately impacted during COVID-19, according to McKinsey Global Institute, with greater job losses, often as a result of increasing unpaid care.

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Helping women be heard

BYU researchers say that even small changes to make sure women in a meeting, or on a call, can fully contribute or express their views can make all the difference.

Positive interjections, such as “that’s an interesting point”, can elevate and help validate women’s voices in spaces where they may otherwise be lost, they added.

The goal is to create an environment in which women can be as influential as their authentic selves, says Preece.

“If we build a world in which women’s voices are valued and listened to, they will speak up without having to be told to.”

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