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How to better include women in the virtual environment

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Several reports have indicated how the pandemic has been disproportionately affecting women negatively, whether by way of additional household or caring responsibilities, instability of role or income, or even simply finding it harder to contribute well in virtual meetings. New global data from UN Women suggests the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality. Employment and education opportunities could be lost, and women may suffer from poorer mental and physical health.

This hasn’t been an easy time for anyone (let that be the truth), but for those that are juggling multiples roles, without clear boundaries, and often with technology limitations as the teenagers eat up the broadband and the kids need the devices, it is hard to be show up to every meeting, let alone to give your best.  So how do we not equate how we perceive others in this period, compared with ourselves?  I mean if I can manage to join each meeting, be present and contribute well, surely they can too?  Comparison against our own (often advantaged) self is one of the aspects that keeps movement in equality stuck.  We say it should be about meritocracy but we fail to recognise or understand that we aren’t in the same boat.  It may not be that I’m any less capable or less committed than you, but that the demands on my time and focus are different. Particularly during a pandemic when much of the home-schooling and child-care responsibilities fall on my shoulders.  

What we expect of women – at home and in the workplace – needs to be kept front and centre through this period to not unwittingly let slip the progress that women have strived for be undone through assumptions, ignorance and frankly unrealistic expectations. We need to better recognise and value unpaid work in the home, as well as support women to engage as fully as possible in our teams. If we turn our attention to just one aspect of how we can include women better through this period, let’s look at virtual meetings.  A recent WEF report identified that women were speaking up less in virtual meetings. Almost half (45%) of US women business leaders surveyed in September 2020 said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, while one-in-five women felt they’d actually been ignored on such calls. (

Assuming it were a level playing field where everyone got an invite and was able to attend a virtual team meeting, what can be done to make sure we bring the diversity of our team to life – by including and hearing everyone?  Is it the women that need to do something different, or is it the collective environment?  The WEF report advises changing the environment – virtual or physical – to encourage value for all, rather than expecting the women to change how they speak.

Of course there isn’t a simple or single answer to this, just as there isn’t a single shared female experience. That would be like saying we all experience being a women in business in the same way, irrespective of our background, our identity, our characteristics, our family situation, our life experience (need I go on?) You need to talk to the women on your team, to ask how they are feeling (open questions please, not ‘are you feeling included?’ more ‘how are you feeling included?’ Or ‘what would increase your feeling of inclusion in our virtual sessions?’ and invite them to share ideas of what could help them in your team).

Here’s some ideas to get you thinking about what you and your team can do to increase the likelihood of gaining the benefit from the (undoubtedly wonderful) women on your team in the virtual environment: 

Even before you’re in the session,

Maximise the chance of getting your team together, and focussed, by regularly checking what meeting time works best – particularly for those juggling multiples roles. This isn’t the time for your PA to go out and check what works best in your diary alone. Understand the constraints each person is under (irrespective of gender), and don’t make assumptions that there is routine on a daily or weekly basis.  These pandemic weeks have often meant routine has had to be ripped up.  Those with caring responsibilities or kids at home will have times that are better than others: ask and ask again.

Once you’re in the virtual session

  1. Invite everyone to give a one-minute check-in and response to the meeting agenda/purpose (this way you’ll hear all voices at the start of the meeting, increasing the likelihood of all continuing to contribute and minimising the risk of a few dominating)

  2. Acknowledge each contribution, rather than jumping to follow the energy of the liveliest/loudest team member.  

  3. Practise building rather than blocking conversations in your team (ie allowing an idea to be expanded and added to, rather than jumping through ideas instantaneously)

  4. Notice any patterns you may have in how you communicate within your team.  Do certain people that tend to ‘bat off’ each other (positively or negatively), are there people that tend to hold the floor taking up most time, are there others who haven’t spoken? Pay attention to - quality of listening, degree of reflection, level of cooperation, curiosity, competitiveness to name but a few.  

  5. Invite one of your team (on a rotating basis) to hold the ‘process’ of how well you are communicating and including. What do you notice you’re getting better at?  Where do you need to continue to focus? 

  6. Having discussed an item, check in whether anyone has any different point of view – what would it take to disconfirm your thinking? Actively seek divergence rather than homogeneity in ideas and thinking, at least in the early stages.  

  7. Use all functionality to encourage participation – not everyone finds speaking in virtual meetings easy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something interesting and useful to offer – use chat, hands up, whiteboard to encourage ‘hearing’ what’s not being said.

  8. Recognise that extroverts will love the opportunity to have some interaction, and to speak through their thinking.  If the session is to be one of idea-storming, recognise that introverts may prefer an opportunity to reflect – either in advance or afterwards – rather than compete to be heard in the session.  How is the conversation kept alive between virtual meetings, that encourages more engagement?

  9. This one may be the most controversial yet, but I’d advocate using Cameras On for team meetings that are about more than information transmission.  We benefit from seeing body language, and facial expressions to guide us in our understanding of impact.  Although it is admittedly much harder to perceive than in person, body language can help as we try to judge a reaction from others.  If cameras on isn’t feasible for all, agree a team norm that ALL will have cameras off so we equalise the input to our senses, and to where our attention goes.  Many a time I’ve missed someone being on the call if their video is off and not in my immediate periphery.  And on occasion I’ve made assumptions that it’s because they’re doing other work, when they perhaps just want to focus on the audio rather than visual stimulation.  A good example where it’s too easy to make assumptions that are untested, bias or unfair, especially in this often fragile world of virtual communication.

As the WEF article concluded, we have a lot of learning and unlearning to do, so let’s get started.

Where are the areas you/your team need to learn or unlearn?

Perhaps even using this article, or these suggestions, as a basis for a conversation with your team could be a starting point to what might be a transforming conversation.

Stay stay. Stay connected.


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