Why it’s critical to claim virtual space as a woman in 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 has seen a new kind of workplace.

Remote work has been on the rise for years, but entire workplaces have never gone virtual practically overnight. While it was a challenge for us all, it was made doubly hard for those who already face adversity in the workplace.

Any woman who’s spent time in corporate settings, especially in male-dominated industries, knows that it can sometimes be a struggle to make your voice heard. It’s a problem that’s only exacerbated if you’re a woman of color or if you belong to any other marginalized community. As workplaces around the world went virtual, it might have been seen as an opportunity for a level playing field. The truth, however, is not so rosy.

“When you’re in a virtual space, it’s much more difficult to kind of make that space yours,” says Mariann Gyorke, a freelance consultant. Mariann is a seasoned professional in the world of consultancy and teaching, so she’s well used to owning a room and holding the attention of groups of people while speaking to them. Yet when she was faced with a Zoom call with two male clients and her physical presence was contained to just a small stretch of screen, she found her confidence slipping away.

woman using computer sitting on black chair

“Somehow I felt like I couldn’t really be myself or I didn’t have my usual powers of persuasion,” Mariann explains. “I think it had to do with the fact that they could see me. I hadn’t met [one of them] in real life, so he didn’t even have a previous impression of me, just this little window. I felt really uncomfortable being seen, and I’m sure that this feeling of uncomfortableness was tied to the fact that I was a woman.”

And she’s not alone. Trainee lawyer, Leila Gordon, also faced a situation that she (and many other women) are used to dealing with in the workplace, but found it far harder to handle on a Zoom call.

During a virtual seminar, points made by Leila were consistently ignored by the rest of her all-male group. Even worse, sometimes they repeated back points she had just made and were commended for them, with no one apparently noticing it was only an echo of her own original idea.

“It can be quite difficult to be heard [on Zoom],” Leila admits. “In person, I think people can tell if you’re about to talk, and a decent guy will let you talk if you’re being talked over. Whereas over Zoom, no one really knows when you’re about to talk… It means the good guys who would normally let you talk don’t have the opportunity to let you in.”

macbook pro displaying group of people

Clearly then, technology is cementing an already widespread problem of women not being able to assert themselves. Where previously women could use body language to take up space and be heard, now their influence is reduced to only the shoulders up. The matter seems to stem from the lack of shared physical space, as noticed by a third woman, Hannah Caddick, a freelance writer and editor.

“I feel powerful and authoritative [in person] because I can go into a room and, especially with men, I can look them straight in the eye, give them a firm handshake, and I feel physically equal,” Hannah explains. “Taking up space is quite a big part of how we identify as a person and is quite a big part of how I identify. Being on Zoom takes that away.”

So how can we take back our space as women in the workplace when we’re not actually there?

After noticing the challenges she faced, Mariann set out to change how she approached video calls. She raised her laptop to eye height and took calls while standing up, so she was physically at eye level with her audience. Instead of being slumped at a desk, looking down at a screen, she could stand tall, in a way more natural to in-person meetings.

“My whole way of projecting became somehow much more grounded,” Mariann notes. “I think that was the one thing that helped me a lot, working with my physical posture.”

person using laptop computer beside aloe vera

For Leila, she changed up how she spoke, removing the questioning inflection from her voice: “I think initially, I was very much asking in a question form. Now I make it more definitive and less like a question.”

While it’s good to have strategies like this to have in your back pocket, it’s also important to note that this is very much a two-way street, for both the speaker and the listener. 

“We often take it upon ourselves to try and bridge the gap, but sometimes it’s not our problem,” Hannah states. “It’s because somebody else is not paying attention.”

At the heart of the issue lies this problem: needing to see one another as humans, not as machines. Just because we’re only taking up the same physical space as a laptop screen, doesn’t mean we should only be given the same attention as a computer. 

For women in the virtual workplace, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself (literally). For those working with them, be mindful of the space you’re taking up. Zoom doesn’t need to remove the human connection from the workplace. As Hannah says, “it’s about humanising what feels like a dehumanising experience.”

Rachael Davies

Content Writer & Journalist

Rachael Davies is a content writer and copyeditor with over three years experience in content marketing. She works with start-ups, SMEs, and NGOs to help them raise their profile across social media and other content streams.