Sit Tall, Speak Up! The Challenges Women Face in Virtual Meetings


The green light on your laptop tells you that your camera is working. With a few clicks, your speakers are unmuted and your face and background (carefully curated, with all your mess tidied up), pop up on the screen. A calendar reminder pings - it’s time for your virtual meeting. 

Some say that virtual meetings are a positive outcome of the pandemic. For others, the idea of turning on your laptop camera and microphone for a remote get-together is anxiety inducing and overwhelming. The experience can take a toll, with many feeing exhausted. It’s earned its own slang term, “Zoom fatigue,” though it can mean any type of video-calling platform like Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. 

Regardless of how you feel about them, virtual meetings are becoming a critical place to demonstrate competency for leaders who manage a remote or networked team. For students, participation in virtual settings gets you marks in attention. Actions online are now being used to reprimand and evaluate employees as they work

It’s significant, then, that a growing body of research shows that virtual meetings are not necessarily a level playing field for women in meetings. 

The difficulty of speaking up during virtual meetings for women

A 2020 survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to help women into leadership roles, found that women business leaders find it difficult to speak up in virtual meetings. One in five women reported they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls in the past. 

The survey, conducted in partnership with Edelman Intelligence, aimed to research the impact of COVID-19 on gender equity in the workplace. It examined a group of 1,100 U.S. working adults over the age of 18. 

As a woman who works remotely (as well as in an office) and has taken STEM courses in the past, the importance of women speaking up resonates deeply. It’s why I always get excited to find new organizations and female role models who feel the same way. 

Animah Kosai is the founder at Speak Up At Work, an organization that aims to help create safe work environments. Kosai has found that females tend to be less assertive than men in the workplace. Even female executives. Part of her work with Speak Up is trying to create a world where all individuals can speak freely without fear of reprimand or retaliation - especially young women and girls:  

“As girls at school and at home, we were taught to be polite, wait our turn, raise our hands when we wanted to speak and only speak when we were noticed and given permission,” writes Kosai in a 2018 blog post.  “You know that boy who pushed his way around and would shout out in class when it wasn’t his turn? Well, he is CEO now. Where are you?

So what do you do?

Channel that boy.




Numerous studies back up the finding that workplace meetings have inequities. For example, one study by Yale behavioral psychologist Victoria Brescoll found that when male executives spoke more often they were perceived to be more competent, while when female executives spoke more often they were given lower competence ratings.

Another common occurrence is women being talked over or ignored during meetings. The coined phrase is “mansplaining,” meaning the act of men interrupting, explaining or taking credit for a woman’s idea

It’s an infuriating experience.

A few months ago 22 year old Claire McDonnell, a graduate student in the science and finance program at the University of Iowa, went viral on TikTok because of this exact experience. McDonnell started to film herself as she constantly got interrupted by the men in the class during a project. Her frustration in the video is clear. 

"Live footage of a woman in STEM," captioned McDonnell in the video. She was one of four women in a class with 60 men. 

The video received 2.4 million views almost immediately, with most commenters supporting her.

It isn’t just in virtual spaces that women find it difficult to speak up. A study released by BYU in Life Sciences Education last year showed a considerable gender gap in their results — overall men were 1.5 times more likely than women to speak up. 

So why is it so hard??

There are a number of different reasons that play into what makes someone decide to speak or hold their silence.

Some researchers have found evidence that there are gendered conversation patterns which play out in digital communication tools, even when users are anonymous. These quirks include: speaking time, the length of pauses between speakers, the frequency of questions and the amount of overlapping talk. It's differences like this, supposedly, that can contribute to clashes that happen between differently gendered speakers. 

Other research points to the fact that women tend to be uncomfortable with conflict and lack confidence. Personal testimonies show just how awful this point can be for women, especially when they are young.

The confidence problem isn’t helped by the fact that sometimes (especially in STEM careers) there are not many women who are with you in the room, virtual or not. In the BYU study, the researchers found that having more female peers in the room both significantly increased women's willingness to talk and improved their scores in the course.

Having a female instructor, versus a male instructor, also predicted higher final scores for female students. In comparison, male students' grades showed no difference by instructor gender.

Women less inclined to self-promote than men

Self promotion is another critical skill for career advancement and networking and one that many of us need to work on as Zoom conferences and networking events fill our calendars this year.

The Harvard Gazette reported on a study that came out last year, around this time, that suggested men are far more at ease with self-promotion than women, which contributes to a broad disparity in promotions and pay. This finding is not surprising - it's been well documented that men are more likely to assert their opinions and ideas in meetings. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper described how women tended to rate themselves lower than men in performance: men, on average, gave themselves a 61 out of 100, while women scored themselves as a 46 out of 100. 

What is interesting is that their paper found that confidence alone did not explain the gendered difference in self-promotion. The paper’s co-author, Christine L. Exley, suggested that one possible explanation is a difference in societal norms.

“If women are more averse to engaging in self-promotion, perhaps because of societal pressures or expectations, a gender gap in self-promotion may follow even when it is against their financial interests,” said Exley in her Q&A interview with The Harvard Gazette. 

Leadership matters: how bosses react can also influence whether workers speak up

Getting the courage to speak up is not always easy. It’s why it’s not unusual in virtual calls to see a screen filled with people who have their cameras and microphones turned off.

This is where leaders can step up. 

Research from a Rice University psychologist, Danielle King, found that a leaders’ use of language can encourage workers to offer more ideas in the future, even if their suggestions end up being rejected or not implemented.

"Given that many employee ideas for change cannot be endorsed, our results highlight the practical importance of providing sensitive explanations for why employee suggestions cannot be embraced," said King in an interview covered by Science Daily. "Specifically, it is critically important for leaders to exhibit sensitivity in their communication with employees."

For leaders, this can also mean helping to elevate and validate women’s voices in conversations. 

It’s time to be heard

The evidence shows that the gender gap in the workplace is much more deeply rooted and complicated than it first appears. Women are systematically, and stereotypically, seen as less authoritative. The impact is devastating. It means that less women are speaking and being heard; it means that women are losing out on gaining critical, career-building experiences.

We at Covergalls want to promote creating environments where women are heard and respected for their input. To achieve this, we have to not be afraid to add our own voices to the conversation!

Have a Zoom, Google Hangout, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams - or whatever virtual space - coming up? Our advice is to take up space. 


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