Why forcing people to turn on their Zoom cameras isn’t inclusive

Video calling can mean suddenly your home — complete with piles of laundry, washing up and toys strewn around — is on view to your boss and colleagues. Photo: Getty
Video calling can mean suddenly your home — complete with piles of laundry, washing up and toys strewn around — is on view to your boss and colleagues. Photo: Getty

It’s a scenario many home-workers have had to grapple with during the pandemic. With the kids out of school, you’ve had to juggle home-schooling, caring and work responsibilities. You’re exhausted — and you’ve not had a minute to tidy up the house, so it’s a mess.

Like so many other remote workers, your manager is keen on Zoom calls. Although you’ve got a meeting soon, you try not to worry about your kitchen being a disaster-zone — until your employer asks you to turn your camera on. Suddenly, your home — complete with piles of laundry, washing up and toys strewn around — is on view to your boss and colleagues.

Zoom, hangouts and other video conferencing apps have been a lifesaver for many businesses during COVID-19, allowing teams to stay connected. Remote networks, Slack and other tools have helped make remote work possible, allowing people to collaborate and be productive while reducing the need for people to be in physical workspaces.

READ MORE: Why it’s OK to prioritise your mental health over your job

For many workers, though, video calls have blurred the boundaries between work and home. We have allowed our colleagues a window into our lives that is often kept private. Not only has it made separating our professional and personal lives far more difficult, it has also strengthened sexism and classism — and put working parents at a disadvantage. 

When working in an office, it’s easier for people to present their carefully curated, professional selves. You don’t know if someone’s home is in disarray, or if they’ve not had a chance to do the dishes for a few days. But when video calling under quarantine, all aspects of our lives are on show. And it’s easy for our homes to be assessed and judged by our co-workers and managers. Whether it’s our interior design choices or our pets wandering around in the background, it can invite assumptions about our work ethic.

But when we are judging someone on the appearance of their home, we are forgetting that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t affected everyone equally. Earlier this year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL institute of education interviewed 3,500 families of two opposite-gender parents. The results showed that mothers in England are more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs during the lockdown — and were also doing more childcare and housework too.

The IFS-UCL study showed that mothers are 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently, during the current crisis. Of those who were in paid work prior to the lockdown, mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit. If someone’s home is a state, it’s likely they’re been too busy working, looking after children and simply keeping their head above water to focus on anything else.

READ MORE: How being a ‘cultural fit’ is used against women at work

For a lot of people, remote working has meant throwing on a t-shirt and a pair of tracksuit bottoms before logging on to emails, video calls and projects. With so much going on, it’s understandable that our work attire has become less important. But when we’re forced to turn on our cameras, it’s easier for our co-workers to scrutinise the way we look. And research shows this is far more likely to happen to women.

Of a survey of 2,000 people by the employment law firm Slater and Gordon, 35% of women said they had experienced at least one sexist workplace demand since the lockdown was introduced in March. 

Most commonly, women were subjected to comments about the way they dressed, including to “look nicer for the team” and to appear more “pleasing” to a client — 34% of women were asked to wear more make-up or change their hair, while 27% were told they should “dress more sexy or provocatively.”

Nearly 40% of women said these demands were targeted at them or other women in their teams rather than male peers, which left them feeling objectified, self-conscious and demoralised. Video conferences not only exacerbate the burden on women to bear primary caregiving and household duties, but also to do so with their hair and make-up done.

READ MORE: Why employers shouldn’t spy on their remote workers

In an office environment, we aren’t really aware of our colleagues’ financial situations. You may expect senior members of staff to earn higher, but in general, we don’t know how well-off our co-workers are. But when an employer asks us to turn our cameras on when working from home, class and income divisions can become more obvious. A lucky few may have their own office to work in. But if a colleague shares an apartment with three others or lives in a studio flat, they may be working from their bedroom.

It goes without saying that we are already living and working through stressful times. If someone doesn’t want to turn their camera on during a video call, think carefully about why this might be.