Inequity on Zoom
Story #1. The Zoom workshop started with an ice-breaker. The host asked the participants to share one thing that they had learned recently. After some silence, two comments appeared in the chat. The chair did not react to these; instead, she repeated her request "Please share one thing that you have learned recently". One of the participants switched on her camera and summarized what she had learned from a conference keynote. "Very good," said the host. In the meantime, a few more comments were shared in the chat. The host did not react to these but started reading out her talk while opening up the PowerPoint. The presentation focused on efficient methods in online teaching.
Story #2. The speaker finished their presentation. There were 15 minutes left of the webinar. The audience was asked to post their questions in the chat. I also shared mine. The chair of the meeting was going through the questions, reading them out for the presenter. No chronological order was followed in selecting the questions. Instead, the chair picked the "important" ones, which were, in my impression, the easiest questions to answer. Although there would have been time to include more questions, the chair closed the webinar about five minutes before the official ending time, saying that "We are running out of time, so we cannot answer all the questions." The online meeting ended, and my question was left unanswered.
Story #3. I was in a Zoom breakout room at a staff meeting, in a mixed group of native and non-native speakers of Finnish. All the participants were fluent in English, but some of the non-native speakers, including me, had poor Finnish skills (and this was known to everyone in the breakout room). There was no appointed chair, so a male person took the lead. He was talking in Finnish, inviting questions in Finnish, and summarizing the main points in Finnish. Since he was so dominating, it was a challenge even for the native speakers to contribute, let alone those who did not speak the language so well. When the time was up, the self-appointed chair said that he was quite satisfied with the "lively discussion".
As bell hooks (1994) points out about classroom communities, "our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another's voices, in recognizing one another's presence". Online meetings, though often described as democratic places, are rarely egalitarian. Both in educational and in work contexts, web conferences are operated by strong power dynamics. On one hand, this is due to the technical features of the tool. The host of the meeting has control over the settings such as the start and the end of the meeting, the rights to share the screen, the division of the participants in breakout rooms, the length of the small group discussions - just to mention a few examples. The host or the chair can influence the turn-taking by selecting the next speaker. In addition, as one of the above stories explains, it is also a matter of their decision whether and whose comments are heard, if at all. The host can thus colonize the interaction space via the technical settings.
On the other hand, the meeting participants have to fight for their voice to be heard in an online meeting. In webconferencing, it can be more difficult to signal turn-taking due to the weaker transmission of non-verbal resources such as gestures or facial reactions. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, calls attention to the inequities in meetings due to differences in linguistic/conversation style. She says (Tannen 1995),
"It may seem, for example, that running a meeting in an unstructured way gives equal opportunity to all. But awareness of the differences in conversational style makes it easy to see the potential for unequal access. Those who are comfortable speaking up in groups, who need little or no silence before raising their hands, or who speak out easily without waiting to be recognized are far more likely to get heard at meetings. Those who refrain from talking until it’s clear that the previous speaker is finished, who wait to be recognized, and who are inclined to link their comments to those of others will do fine at a meeting where everyone else is following the same rules but will have a hard time getting heard in a meeting with people whose styles are more like the first pattern."
Tannen (1995) suggests that due to differences in their socialization, men tend to follow the first pattern and women the second. However, not only gender can generate such inequities in online meetings. Linguistic capital is another factor that can influence participation. Those with weaker language skills can easily shy away from talking to hide their linguistic discrepancies. Even more so, if they are among native speakers and thus feel the pressure to use the code of the majority.
As Claire Kramsch (2020: 113) points out, "individual and institutional violence manifest themselves in the seemingly most innocuous verbal activity of everyday life: talk and interaction." Any form of verbal exchange carries the potential of symbolic violence (Kramsch 2020), where symbolic power is manifested to serve and to realize the participants' self-interest. Online meetings are no exception. In addition to gender and language inequity, there can be many other factors generating inequity, such as differences in social status or in digital literacy.
Being aware of this, it is important to give everyone a chance to let their voice heard in meetings. "You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say", says Samuel Delany, who encourages his students to raise their hands regardless of whether they know the answer to a question or not. The main point is to motivate everyone to participate and to listen to each voice.
Delany, S. "The Polymath: Or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman," a film by Frederick Barney Taylor (https://vimeo.com/243689485)
hooks, b. (1994) Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.
Kramsch, C. (2020). Language as Symbolic Power. Cambridge University Press.
Tannen, D. (1995). The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. Harvard Business Revirew. https://hbr.org/1995/09/the-power-of-talk-who-gets-heard-and-why