Women, unmute yourselves – How gender issues play out in the Zoom era

Authors: Catherine Grant and Anna Ngarachu

If you’re a bit like most people, Zoom and other digital platforms have become your go-to meeting point, not only in the professional space but for social get-togethers, work outs and education. This trend will likely continue to be the modus operandi even after lockdown because digital platforms have proved to be so efficient and a major timesaver for many.

The events we also frequented in the past, to learn and network, have since pivoted to webinars and online functions. As we continually use and become more familiar with these platforms, it is worth asking the question whether anyone has noticed what this transition will mean for women’s participation on webinars and other online events. Are their perspectives put forward effectively using these virtual platforms?

We need to bear in mind the importance of ensuring women have a voice in the online engagements that are replacing traditional events for exchanging views and contributing to policy development. It is essential that we don’t lose the momentum around getting more women to speak on economic and policy issues that was slowly building before the coronavirus pandemic. Here is a bit of a backstory, alluding to a previous blog, to illustrate the importance of this question.

Including women as speakers at events, not only brings in different perspectives and experiences, such as the constraints they may face while trading or conducting business, but their views have been seen to be more inclusive. Having an environment that includes others who appreciate women’s point of view will allow women to speak up more and raise questions. Therefore, while speaking on online platforms like Zoom, it is helpful if women can relate with their fellow Zoom panellists, moderators, and have some assurance that the Zoom Master (who controls the technical side of the Zoom event) will assist them should they have any technical glitches.

Harvard Business School, in an  article on Racism and Digital Design: How Online Platforms Can Thwart Discrimination, called for further reflection on the essence of gender discrimination on online platforms. The article considers the design of other platforms like Uber and Airbnb and whether their design excludes the black population from being accepted for their booking requests. Adding anonymity to booking requests proved to be the solution in this case. Some of the article’s recommendations, which resonate here, include building awareness, which we hope to have done by calling for the end of ‘manels’. It is also important for organisers to be transparent about concerns of gender discrimination at their events and employ choice-architecture (as described in the HBS study) when selecting their panellists. Seeing as it is difficult to incorporate anonymity in video conference-style events, it would take a deliberate effort by organisers to ensure balanced representation.

AS SADC Senior Officials meet this week, ahead of 40th Ordinary Summit and Council of Ministers via a digital platform, it would be interesting to see whether the engagements are well balanced and not made up of digital ‘manels’. To achieve the objectives of inclusive, sustainable economic development, women must contribute because their experiences and opinions ensure a level of inclusivity in policymaking that, unfortunately, is still elusive.

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