Workers and caregivers often find that technology helps with the balance of work and home. Although new technology can be disruptive, it can also be liberating. Remote networks, smartphones and other tools have helped make remote work possible, allowing for greater participation and productivity while reducing the need for office “face time.”
But the pandemic zeal for video conferencing at home has had the opposite effect. It imposes the face time values of an office, which are difficult to replicate in a remote environment, and much more so for workers hunkered down with children and other working adults. Commitment is judged by camera clarity and proper lighting. An “on task” worker stares attentively at the camera, elevated to the appropriate height.
At its worst, this reliance on video conferencing reinforces sexism and classism and disadvantages caregivers and parents.
In our rush to abandon using conference calls, we have literally allowed our professional colleagues a window into our lives that is often kept private. Who hasn’t spent the first few minutes of a video chat examining our colleagues’ remote space, scanning for clues about their personal lives and circumstances? In the office, workers can present their curated professional selves, achieving some sort of parity on a neutral office canvas. But in our quarantined video conferences, those personal and professional boundaries are difficult to maintain, as children and pets wander in the background and our home design and organization invite assumptions about our work ethic.
In our physical office space, we are aware of the hierarchy of job classifications, but we do not expect the mail room to mimic the C-suite. In the virtual world, however, we demand all employees to display some semblance of an ideal home office space – at their own expense. We make assumptions about those who call in from corners of their bedrooms. Are they lazy, sloppy or hiding something? Or do they block out their personal space with a computer-generated design, unless of course they have invested in the upscale green screen and on-brand lighting. When the boss convenes a video call among the team to boost morale, they may be unwittingly emphasizing class and income divisions instead.
The demands of the video conference lay bare these distinctions we can usually hide or ignore: who can afford a dedicated workspace, who has to share that space with a working spouse or partner, who is a primary caregiver, who has the time to “look professional.” This is particularly true for women.
Studies show women are judged on their appearance, and it is a difficult target to hit with makeup, but not too much makeup. Attractive but not too attractive. And there is a significant “grooming gap” between men and women, as the cost and time for women to meet these norms is significantly higher.
To add to this further, women are also doing more in the home and bearing the brunt of pandemic-related responsibilities. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace report, 40% of women said they do all or most of the child care and housework for their families. Just 12% of men said the same. According to new research by LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey, 77% of mothers have taken on more household work since the pandemic started. Video conferences exacerbate the burden on women to bear primary caregiving and household duties – while wearing the appropriate amount of makeup and with their hair done. No virtual background provides an instant makeover.
These are stressful times. To some extent, we can mute out unwanted noise, but it’s much more difficult to alter and hide the stark images of our changed lives. It’s time to get over our love affair with video conferencing. There are other technologies available for collaboration and work sharing. And other ways to encourage team connection in more inclusive ways. Save the video conference for the virtual happy hour and schedule a conference call for work.
Veronica Vargas Stidvent is the executive director of the Center for Women in Law at The University of Texas at Austin and is a former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.