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She’s Come Undone: Is Gender Bias as Amplified in the Virtual Workplace?

Carla Varriale-Barker


  • Remote working leads to longer hours and increased caregiving responsibilities, disproportionately affecting women and potentially leading to career downshifts or exits.
  • Positive aspects of remote working include equal participation in meetings, but challenges such as "manterruption" persist, with women feeling ignored or talked over.
  • Remote work intensifies focus on appearance and background, disproportionately impacting women and highlighting pre-existing gender biases in both virtual and physical office environments.
She’s Come Undone: Is Gender Bias as Amplified in the Virtual Workplace?
LukaTDB via Getty Images

In a recent article published in The Glasshammer, Aimee Hansen considered whether remote working is a key element to creating more gender equality. In “Is Gender Bias Amplified in the Workplace?,” Hansen observed that the pandemic ushered in the dissolution of the boundary between home and work. The dissolution of this boundary, however, also means that most people are working longer hours. Remote working (particularly when coupled with virtual schooling) also increases the disproportionate number of hours devoted to caregiving and domestic work, and that burden often falls on women. Furthermore, there may be no “room of her own” or space available to many women who are working remotely. Networking and informal work relationships, which are beneficial to the integration and advancement of women in the work force, have been challenging, notwithstanding creative strategies to keep people engaged with virtual meetings, events, and team-building exercises. As a result of new and existing stressors, many women have chosen to downshift their careers or exit the workplace altogether—and that is the sort of “equality erosion” women of all backgrounds cannot afford.

Some of the positive effects of remote working noted by Hansen are that it may neutralize gender imbalances and “unhinge the norms of hierarchy.” She highlighted a report that women leaders remained more positive than men about chairing online meetings and that the online platform can ensure that all team members can readily contribute to a meeting. She correctly noted that the active speaker in a remote meeting is, by default, everyone’s focus, regardless of gender. For example, she points out that every participant in a virtual meeting is literally on an equal grid.

Or are they?

Hansen also discussed a phenomenon that is not unfamiliar to most women in the workforce: “manterruption,” whereby men are more likely to interrupt their female colleagues. She cited research, including some by Catalyst, where one in five women has felt ignored and overlooked by coworkers using video calls. Forty-five percent of women business leaders say it is difficult for women to speak in virtual meetings, and 42 percent of male business leaders agree. Additionally, 31 percent of women and queer/non-binary respondents reported “getting talked over, interrupted, or ignored more frequently during virtual meetings than those held in person” in a July 2020 survey by the Society of Women Engineers. As a consequence, women may be speaking less than their male counterparts in virtual meetings. This phenomenon magnifies pre-existing gender dynamics and the quoted research that women are speaking less than their male counterparts in virtual meetings.

Hansen does not mention other aspects of gender bias that have been exacerbated by the shift to remote work: the tyranny of the Zoom Ring or “Lume Cube.” These devices, which are supposed to enhance the way a person looks in online meetings and events, underscores the focus on appearance and background, and this focus disproportionately impacts women who already struggle with cultural pressure about their appearance and maintaining a picture-perfect home life. I have never felt such an intense focus on what I look like from the waist up or what my surroundings look like. This is a stress that may not be unique to remote working but is exacerbated by it. Being “on screen” most of the day and looking at myself is distracting, at best. And most of us have a less than “Room Rater” perfect home office, or any home office, as my kitchen table can attest to.

Hansen highlights that gender inequality is inherent in our culture and that it is alive and well in the office environment, whether in the remote office or the “real life” office. Flagging the focus on appearances and “manterruption” is one way to build awareness. I would have liked her article to suggest where we go from here, however, and also suggest ways we can harness the benefits of remote working (the absence of time spent commuting is one obvious example). In addition, we need to address what has been forcing women out of even the remote workforce during the pandemic and how we can support women online and in real life. The article started the conversation; we should continue it.