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THE NEUTRAL RECTANGLE

Video conferencing is a secret equalizer for women

REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
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  • Grace Chen
By Grace Chen

CEO, Common Networks

As a co-founder and CEO of an essential service operating during the pandemic, I’ve been working remotely for more than a month. As an extrovert, I have to admit I’ve felt cooped up and was initially wary of the online-only workspace. As a woman, though, I’ve ultimately come to notice that working remotely provides unexpected benefits that in-person meetings don’t.

Like everyone else, I’m stuck at home. In my case I’m sharing limited space with my husband and young kids. Needless to say, it’s a chaotic scene in our house every day. And to top it off, my company is at an important juncture: we’re headed into fundraising. When I learned we’d be fundraising digitally, my instinct was that raising money remotely could only be more challenging. After all, the process requires personableness, engagement, and an established rapport. Every investor I asked shared that they’d never done a deal entirely remotely before.

But I’ve realized that video conferencing actually comes with some pleasant side effects. For instance, we no longer have to account for the travel time to and from offices, or rack up expenses for gas, rideshares, or lunches. Even more powerful is the effect that video conferencing has on a typically thorny feature of the modern business meeting: gender roles.

The conference room checklist

As a woman, walking into a meeting isn’t as simple as just opening a door and taking a seat. There are multiple factors—a checklist even—that women have to mentally consider before meeting with male colleagues or partners. For many women, this is so practiced that it happens subconsciously.

One of the members of my executive team is a 5’2” woman. She is a powerhouse in so many ways: her technical chops, her ability to learn anything at lightning speed, her emotional IQ, and her work ethic. Like many women in tech, she has spent most of her career being the only woman in the room. She also tends to be the shortest one there. Normally while settling into a meeting, my colleague pumps her chair up to the highest setting in order to sit at eye level with everyone else. At external meetings, she wears all black to draw attention away from her fashion choices and gender. And like me, she is careful when navigating discussions with classic Silicon Valley know-it-all male engineers who might react sorely if corrected by a woman.

It’s these small considerations—what to wear, how high to sit, when to speak up—that women have to make (along with men who don’t conform to industry stereotype) to eliminate potential distractions from an otherwise successful meeting. Only now, a lot fewer of those considerations are necessary.

The neutral rectangle

For better or worse, our world has been forcibly shrunk into a laptop-sized rectangle where everyone is just a head and a pair of shoulders (with maybe the added plant or frame in the background). In this new space, so many factors are made invisible: your clothes, your body, your shoes, your perfume, your pheromones, your height, or your build. Many of the things that subconsciously remind people of your gender are no longer apparent. All of these elements that might have an impact during in-person meetings—whether through conscious or unconscious bias—are gone.

In an instance that perfectly exemplifies the neutralizing effects of a video call, you would have no idea if you saw her in a video conference that my company’s co-founder is currently seven months pregnant. As much as we would like to hope that her pregnancy would have no impact on our fundraising efforts, the awkward interactions she experienced while fundraising for our last round (and during her first pregnancy) definitely indicated a certain level of discomfort.

There are other factors that video conferencing neutralizes. Removing the physical office space means nobody gets any sense of how fancy or well-appointed (or not) anybody else’s surroundings are. This removes a huge potential for bias in perception. We’re all at our dining tables, in our home offices, or even in our basements, and one person’s backdrop of a cream-colored wall is as good as anyone else’s. Within the video box, we’re also laid bare as people with homes and lives outside of work. It makes us all seem a little bit more human and little less intimidating.

I’m not advocating for a fully remote work environment. As an extreme extrovert, I miss the hum and buzz of our shared workplace. I fondly think back to impromptu gatherings in the office kitchen, and I can’t wait to poke my head around my monitor to crack jokes with my colleagues again. But working remotely via video conference has brought on a strange, equalizing effect that I don’t want to lose. In noticing it and making ourselves aware, hopefully we can take the best parts of this experience back to our regular lives, and start to figure out how to also create more equitable environments outside the video rectangle.

Grace Chen is the CEO of Common Networks, a home internet service provider.

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