The discussion wasn’t about pay equality…
..or diversity representation…
…or anything you’d normally think of as divisive or potentially upsetting.
Not even close.
Apparently, the controversial topic was over my question regarding whether the participants, who all were working remotely, used webcams when communicating with colleagues.
Who knew I was stepping into a hornet’s nest?
As a man, talking about gender, or “men are like this, women are like this,” is a fool’s game. (Unless you’re a nightclub comic or intentionally courting controversy to sell a book, you can’t possibly win.)
Yet I began to seriously ask; why did there seem to be such a HUGE disparity in attitude between equally professional, experienced, and driven leaders of either sex?
Why were the men in the class so blasé about using webcams (at least those who didn’t use them weren’t horrified at the thought), while so many of the women adamant that it would take an act of Congress to get them to turn the cameras on? (Many had actually taped over the built-in cameras on their laptops to prevent even accidental video leakage.)
At first, I resorted to logic and “man-splaining,” thinking that the resisters just didn’t understand the value of the tool.
—Didn’t the fact that I was teaching the session VIA WEBCAM make the session more interesting?
–Didn’t it help them relate to me more?
–Weren’t they paying closer attention than they might have otherwise?
The answers were yes, yes and YES!
So, then, surely they would start using their webcams with their teams, since the benefits were so obvious?
That’s when things got awkward.
These very capable, ambitious people were intentionally avoiding a tool that they admitted logically offered significant advantages.
With the benefit of some time, I came to a conclusion that I actually reached a long time ago when it came to human behavior: Logic has very little to do with the choices we make.
Every day, we make decisions based on emotion or psychological comfort, rather than logic.
That’s why there are approximately 250 different car models available around the world. (If function were the only consideration, we’d have maybe 20.)
So what were the reasons that could override the benefits of using a webcam?
Social conditioning is one overriding reason.
Women, for all kinds of reasons, are more often—and more harshly—judged on their appearance than men are. It only stands to reason that they’d be more protective of their image. Given the poor lighting, bad camera angles and shoddy resolution of webcams, it’s hard to look really good on a webcam.
To many, it’s just one more thing to worry about. One of the joys of teleworking is that you can pretty much dress however you want. Many million-dollar deals are closed in an AC/DC t-shirt and cargo shorts.
Who knows the difference?
Many people of both genders are not only doing their jobs, but are running the household, getting the kids off to school, and making sure Barney the Jack Russell has been walked in between conference calls.
Having to appear on camera creates an additional level of pressure and attention to detail that may distract from everything they have to do that day. If you have to LOOK like you’re in the office, what’s the point?
Add to these reasons the various cultural, ethical, and social constraints we constantly deal with, ranging from false modesty to embarrassment about physical features, and you can see that many people just aren’t comfortable in an online environment.
And the more professional the situation, the less comfortable they are.
So what can you do about it as the leader, to encourage more people to take advantage of the tool without fear?
- Introduce the cameras in low-stakes, safe environments. Team meetings with co-workers are far less threatening than sales negotiations with outsiders.
- Start with one-on-one communication, and use it often (although not necessarily all the time). As with most resistance to technology or process, exposure increases acceptance.
- Acknowledge the discomfort and work together to create processes that work. For example, don’t catch people unaware, and then expect them to gladly pop their cameras on with no warning.
Male or female, don’t ignore or discount objections to using a particular technology. The reasons might not make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate.
Wayne Turmel is the founder and president of GreatWebMeetings.com. For 20 years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology includingMeet Like You Mean It- a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com. Marshall Goldsmith calls him “one of the unique voices to listen to in the virtual workplace”. He works with organizations around the world to help people use technology to lead people and projects and build productive human connections in an increasingly remote work environment.