On days when Melissa Klinko knows she’ll be seen on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, she whips out her mascara wand and then logs on early to make sure she looks right—centered on the screen, no up-the-nostrils view. Otherwise, she’ll opt for audio-only.
“It’s makeup on, hair done, and showered for those important meeting days,” says the Binghamton, N.Y-based communications manager for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “I want them to see me as a professional person. There’s a fear that if I show up in sweatshirt with my hair pulled back, ‘Is she really giving us 100% at home?’”
Business meetings are now primarily conducted through videoconferencing, as the majority of companies have switched to telework due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom remains king; other players include Skype, Facebook Messenger Rooms, Google Meet, and Webex.
Regardless of the platform, there are chronic experiences across them all: the coworker who forgets to mute the microphone, the many people who insist on talking over one another, and the women who opt to participate in meetings just via audio.
You’re not imagining it.
Only 55% of women currently working from home due to COVID-19 say they’re likely to “always” or “sometimes” enable video during videoconference meetings, compared to 65% of men, according to a new Harris Poll conducted exclusively for Fast Company. Thirty-nine percent of women disable the video feature during virtual work meetings because they don’t like the way they look at the moment. Compare that to just 25% of men.
And when women do intend to use video, they prep, the survey of 2,026 U.S. adults conducted June 11-15 found. Eighty-five percent will do their hair, versus 74% of men, and 80% will change what they’re wearing, as opposed to 71% of their male counterparts. It’s not only about physical appearance, though; 83% will clean the workspace that will show up on camera as opposed to 77% of men.
“At our company, men are definitely more relaxed. They haven’t shaved. They’re more casual,” Klinko says, citing a colleague who had a disco ball hanging up in the background. “My senior vice presidents show up very casual. The majority are female. They’ll joke around about a bad hair day, a lack of lipstick, or bags under my eyes. But my male colleagues aren’t saying that.”
Can You See Me Now?
Video privileges people who meet certain cultural norms, and there are many for feminine appearance, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a Portland-based psychologist and an expert in how technology influences us. People who are traditionally subjected to lots of scrutiny about their appearances have a harder time with their physical presences showing on screen.
“When your self-awareness is magnified in any way, it takes extra energy from the encounter. ‘Oh, I look silly when I do that.’ It causes more drag or pull and makes the experience more stressful,” she said, adding that it also impacts nonbinary people and POC. “We tend to live in a time of extreme judgement, rather than empathy. One thing it’s done is to objectify others in digital spaces.”
Men, especially white men, “can show up however they want and there’s not that kind of freedom for people of color or women,” Dodgen-Magee adds. “They have to fight for a seat at the table and part of that is having to look the part.”
Brian Gill, principal of TDG Architects in Pontiac, Michigan, says he uses the video component of Zoom 90-95% of the time.
“I’m not concerned about what people look like,” he says. “I was thinking the next best thing to person-to-person is at least you could see someone’s face.”
Gill sits at his dining room table with a curio cabinet and some unlit candles behind him and said he hadn’t given it any thought until some of his staff positioned themselves in their unfinished basements with exposed joists and file cabinets as backgrounds.
“We might as well use it and I’m OK being seen,” he says.
Multitasking on Mute
Going video-free during a work meeting also gives the person a chance to do other things during the call, whether it’s play around on a smartphone or productively respond to urgent emails. Women do more multitasking, according to University of Michigan psychology professor Priti Shah, a multitasking and complex cognition expert, who admitted to participating in a Zoom meeting in audio-only mode, while making lunch for her child.
“It’s a much more cognitively demanding context and different people are making different choices to reduce the cognitive load for them,” she says. “If I see myself and it’s more distracting for me than to a guy, I may have to turn my video off. People are probably monitoring their own participation and engagement to deal with the Zoom call as best as they can.”
According to the Harris Poll, 41% of women said they disable the video feature, because they want to be able to multitask without people knowing. Only 30% said the same thing.
For Tameka Green, PwC’s director of diversity and inclusion, whether she uses video or audio-only depends on who’s in the Google Hangouts or Webex meeting and the nature of the videoconference. When it’s a boss or a superior, like a department chief or EVP, she’ll opt for video and “look a bit more presentable” than she normally does, thanks to something like a good T-shirt and earrings.
“If I’m not feeling presentable or looking bummy, today’s just not a good camera day,” said the New York City resident, who’s noticed that a majority of the women on her team are on audio-only most of the time. “Usually, it had to do with my appearance or the appearance of the home, the background of where I’m having the call.”
Green recently revamped her work-from-home set-up. Previously, she was in the kitchen/dining area, but then moved to a second bedroom that has a plain white wall to sit in front of. She remains concerned about what her home office looks like to others, so she eliminates clutter and decorated after researching to find what she called the right desk, the right amenities, and the best chair.
“It’s a conscious decision to leave it kind of blank right now, just to see how I feel in the space. I might end up leaving that wall blank, because I don’t want to feel distracted by what’s behind me when talking and I don’t want others [to be],” Green said. “I wanted decent type of stuff, mostly because of comfort, but also attractiveness had something to do with it. Who knows how long we’ll be in this situation?”