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Do you hear me?: The problem of gender, inequality, and online meetings

Cut-off. Interrupted. Ignored. Women battle against gender inequality as they struggle to get their voices heard in online meetings.

It is Monday and you’re sitting at your home office with a fresh cup of coffee. You spend your morning staring at little boxes on your computer screen, each containing a person, sitting through the same video conference as you. You wait for each person to finish speaking, hoping that soon, you will get the chance to share your brilliant insights.

But what happens if that chance never comes?

What if you never find the right pause to voice your opinions? Worse yet, perhaps you do speak up, but immediately get cut off by that hot-shot colleague who always seems to shout into his microphone.

"An astounding one-in-five women even reported feeling ignored in online calls."

When you finally hang up the call, you are left feeling dejected, unheard, and ignored.

Although everyone can identify with these experiences to some degree, women, in particular, are likely to associate with this narrative. In fact, a recent article from the World Economic Forum suggests that nearly half (45%) of female business leaders found it difficult to speak up in virtual meetings. In addition, an astounding one-in-five women even reported feeling ignored in online calls. This sense of disempowerment is sadly all too familiar to many minorities in a power imbalanced workplace.

Structures replicated in the digital space

The unfortunate reality is that traditional structures of inequality are being replicated in the digital space. Women, who have historically been subjugated to discrimination at work and are often perceived as “less influential” than male counterparts, are once again finding themselves fighting against a broken social system.

This struggle is captured in a New York Times article highlighting the case of Mita Mallick, Unilever’s head of diversity and inclusion. Mallick laments that she was interrupted three times when trying to express her opinions during a virtual meeting and when she finally got a word in, she was met with a blank response. This demoralizing and frustration-inducing experience exemplifies the lives of many women in the contemporary “work from home” world.

Part of a bigger problem

The problem of gender inequities affects more than women. It affects social progress and the success of a company as a whole. In fact, research finds that inclusive teams reap greater rewards and make better business decisions. Additionally, a 2015 McKinsey Power Parity report estimates that increased equality could inject 13 trillion USD into global growth by 2025. Further, research from Michigan State University shows that perceived gender equality in the workplace had a positive relationship to job satisfaction. This indicates that addressing questions of equality have implications for not only financial but social causes as well.

As meetings increasingly take place on online platforms, companies and individuals have an important choice to make. Do we continue to perpetuate the inequalities that plague physical meetings or make a change? Considering the robust body of research finding that inclusion results in beneficial business and social outcomes, the right decision appears evident. To foster a more gender considerate environment, companies need a way to measure, understand and gauge equality in meetings.

Respect the opinions of all our colleagues

Are women interrupted more often than male colleagues? Do they feel less comfortable speaking up in the team? Are men more likely to dominate the conversation? These are all questions that companies should be asking and monitoring in order to facilitate a welcoming environment for all employees. Tools, such as Allting, a product utilizing data science to address meeting challenges, can be leveraged to tackle these questions.

As a society, we need to cultivate a world in which the female voice carries as much weight as the male voice. If women are valued and listened to in the work environment, businesses and individuals are more likely to thrive. We can take a small step in the right direction by making sure that, next Monday morning, we validate and respect the opinions of all our colleagues, regardless of gender.

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