Virtual meetings amplify inequities of human communication

[Even if virtual meetings could fully replicate nonmediated communication they wouldn’t solve the many problems with human interactions, but as this story in The New York Times explains, the reduced experience of presence in meetings via video conferencing can amplify gender and personality-based inequities. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: Shannon May]

It’s Not Just You: Virtual Meetings Aren’t All That Great

Overlapping chatter. Interruptions. Gaffes on camera. And for women, possibly not being heard at all.

By Alisha Haridasani Gupta
April 14, 2020

“Everything that we think is going to be an equalizer turns out not to be.”
— Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University

Last week, Mita Mallick tried to share an opinion during an online meeting but her voice was drowned out.

“I’m interrupted, like, three times and then I try to speak again and then two other people are speaking at the same time interrupting each other,” said Mallick, head of diversity and inclusion at the consumer goods company Unilever.

When she finally did get a word in, she couldn’t gauge anyone’s response. She cracked a joke and couldn’t determine if anyone was laughing. She couldn’t tell if anyone agreed with the points she was trying to make. She just saw blank stares.

She isn’t the only one feeling frustrated with the new reality of plugging into meetings from home.

As more people adjust to working remotely, video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts have seen explosive growth, leading to some gaffes (one woman turned herself into a potato, an Italian priest live-streamed a 50-minute mass with filters on) and some serious security concerns (from Zoombombing to undisclosed data mining).

Remote meetings are also starting to crystallize how much harder it is for women to be heard in group settings.

Countless studies have shown that workplace meetings are riddled with inequities. One study by the Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll found that when male executives spoke more often, they were perceived to be more competent, but when female executives spoke more often, they were given lower competence ratings. The annual McKinsey and Women in the Workplace report, which in 2019 surveyed 329 companies and more than 68,000 employees, found that half of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38 percent had others take credit for their ideas.

And according to a review of more than 7,000 employee feedback surveys on 1,100 female executives, when women expressed passion for an opinion or an idea in meetings, their male counterparts perceived them as being too emotional.

Online, these imbalances are amplified, according to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has been studying how men and women speak for decades.

In her research, Tannen found that many of the inequities in meetings can be boiled down to gender differences in conversation styles and conventions. That includes speaking time, the length of pauses between speakers, the frequency of questions and the amount of overlapping talk. More often than not, men and women differ on almost every one of those aspects, Tannen said, which leads to clashes and misunderstandings.

“Women often feel that they don’t want to take up more space than necessary so they’ll often be more succinct,” she explained, and they tend to speak in more self-deprecating or indirect ways in order to come across as likable.

Men, on the other hand, tend to speak longer and they can be more argumentative and critical in order to be perceived as authoritative.

Tannen recalled how back in the 1990s, the Marriott company reached out to her for perspective on a new software it was introducing for its employees that would allow them to participate in meetings virtually, more or less anonymously. It was, in a way, one of the first examples of a virtual meeting.

The company was certain the new software would eliminate sexism, Tannen recalled. “I remember feeling very optimistic myself.”

But of course, it didn’t pan out that way.

Women’s ways of speaking — succinct, indirect, self-deprecating — were projected onto this platform. And “it turned out that women’s comments were often ignored online for the same reasons they were often ignored in person and people could guess who was a woman and who was a man,” Tannen said.

Other researchers, like Susan Herring, professor of linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington, have found similar gendered conversation patterns play out in other digital communication tools, even if users are anonymous.

More recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, as Tannen transitioned to teaching her classes on Zoom, she expected her more reticent students to be more comfortable with speaking out in class but found that for many the new digital classroom had the inverse effect.

“You’re looking at a screen with everybody’s face staring back at you. It can be even more intimidating,” she explained.

Online communication also strips away all of the subtle, nonverbal cues that managers and team leaders are trained to pick up on to keep meetings moving forward. Conference calls or video conferences make it harder to know how long to pause before letting someone else speak or when someone else wants to jump in, unless they wave their arms around wildly.

“If I was in a meeting before and I could see that someone had something on their mind but didn’t feel like they could speak up, I would be like, ‘Hey Jen, I’d love your insights,’ but I can’t do that now,” said Mallick from Unilever.

Now, Mallick uses the chat function more and has adopted more explicit gestures in video meetings.

“The other day, I was giving a thumbs up, I was making a heart with my hands, I was smiling. As the person was giving their point of view, I was trying to show them nonverbally that I was excited about what they’re saying,” said Mallick of a recent 25-person meeting.

She also tries to ask everyone in the meeting specific questions so that they have an opportunity to speak. And she has made it a point to turn on her camera for every meeting, even if that means having her child interrupt her, hoping it will encourage others to show up in any circumstance rather than go unseen and unheard.

But perhaps the problem lies in holding virtual meetings in the first place.

Basecamp, a project management software company that adopted remote work policies about 20 years ago, has all but eliminated virtual meetings unless they are absolutely necessary. Instead it prioritizes long-form written communication, which the company says can create transparency and a clear record of who is saying what.

Research has found, however, that even in that type of long-form written communication, men are more likely to post longer messages, assert opinions as facts and challenge others.

“The bottom line is everything that we think is going to be an equalizer turns out not to be,” Tannen said.

This entry was posted in Presence in the News. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


  • Find Researchers

    Use the links below to find researchers listed alphabetically by the first letter of their last name.

    A | B | C | D | E | F| G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z