Agonizing silences. Accidental unmutes. Unfortunate freezing. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that virtual communication comes with its own set of rules, faux pas, and anxieties. This high-tech form of interaction has allowed us to maintain social connections while remaining physically distant.1 There has been little consideration, however, of how identity descriptors, such as gender, impact our experience of communicating exclusively online, particularly in professional settings.
In April 2020, mere months into the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, The New York Times chronicled women’s experiences of struggling to make themselves heard in virtual meetings, citing frequent interruptions from male colleagues, minimal nonverbal cueing, and outright dismissal of their contributions.2 For many women, these patterns mirror what goes on during in-person gatherings.3 In fact, research has indicated that women correctly assume they will receive negative backlash from taking up too much airtime when speaking, a concern that is not shared by their male colleagues.4 The persistence of workplace bias and discrimination on the basis of gender is nothing new: women across a wide range of industries can attest to the endurance of these obstacles. But do gender differences in communication styles compound women’s experiences of being ignored?
The short answer is: yes. There are a number of variations in the ways that men and women tend to express themselves. From a young age, females are more likely to draw on relational language that brings people together and downplays their own status within a group. By contrast, boys are expected to use language to establish and reinforce their superiority amongst their peers, and to emphasize their strengths and achievements.5 Linguist Deborah Tannen (1995) notes that these differences continue from sandbox to boardroom, where men are often more comfortable taking credit and occupying the spotlight than their equally-qualified female coworkers. As a result, women can struggle to make their ideas heard in both educational and professional settings.
Zooming in: Gender & communication during the pandemic
Cut to April 2021, when working from home is the norm for many, and a typical morning commute consists of shuffling from bed to kitchen table. When women around the world log on to Zoom and Google Meet for team meetings and staff calls, many find themselves dealing with this same set of challenges in their professional lives. In fact, some researchers argue that gender differences in communication styles are exacerbated online.6 In the workplace, computer-mediated communication has been linked to men posting longer written messages than women and taking up more airtime, while women are often perceived as more cooperative and willing to go along with the group.7 That said, more studies are needed: Surprisingly, there is scant research into gender differences in video conferencing communication (despite the fact that the cost of Zoom shares increased over 500% in 2020).8
When it comes to how gender and online communication interact in educational settings, the evidence is mixed. Some research has found that, although male students tend to take up a disproportionate amount of time speaking during in-person classes, on online learning platforms, female students post more written messages than their male counterparts do.9 On the other hand, an earlier study conducted by Barrett and Lally (1999) observed that in computer-mediated learning settings, male students tend to send more and longer messages than female students, who use the messaging tool to send more interactive, socially-engaging messages than male learners.10
In fact, working towards equitable virtual workplace and classroom exchanges could be as simple as strategically utilizing the mute button. Providing individuals with the opportunity to share their thoughts for a set length of time, while all other meeting participants remain muted, could combat frequent interruptions. Since women tend to be well-versed in non-verbal communication, some organization leaders have deliberately attempted to make hand gestures and non-verbal expressions visible on-screen.1
It is evident that men and women tend to use online communication tools in different ways,11 and companies should take steps to ensure that employees of all genders are able to express themselves effectively while using digital communication. Small changes in our communication practices have the potential to make a big impact on workers’ day-to-day experiences and might even carry over into more equitable in-person communication in the post-pandemic workplace.