Does the disembodied Zoom class boost gender equality?

Person taking a selfie in a ball pit

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During the past 12 months, women faculty have finally experienced something most of their male counterparts have always taken for granted: the privilege of having more focus on their heads than their bodies in the classroom.

Since last March, I’ve had dozens of conversations with women of all ages and gender expressions about the strangely liberating experience of being just a face on a Zoom screen.

I should state upfront that I am shocked to find myself celebrating this quasi-split between mind and body. After all, isn’t this dualism what feminist scholars are supposed to rail against? But in welcoming what one might describe as the rise of the virtual Cartesian subject, I’m not suggesting that bodies don’t matter. Bodies do matter – and, on campus, this continues to create an uneven terrain for anyone who identifies as a woman.

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There is substantial evidence that students rate the teaching of women more harshly than that of their male counterparts. Equally troubling are findings that women are far more likely than men to be evaluated based on their appearance.

Unsurprisingly, when women enter the classroom visibly pregnant, the discrimination seems to get ramped up even more. A recent study by Marjukka Ollilainen, based on interviews with 32 faculty working at 21 US institutions, found that prevailing assumptions that the “ideal academic” is necessarily disembodied negatively impact how students and colleagues alike evaluate pregnant faculty.

Women faculty aren’t the only people who face gender-based discrimination. Legal scholar Joan C. Williams has argued that sexual harassment in the classroom and lab may explain why women continue to get filtered out of the STEM pipeline before they even reach faculty level. Nor is the problem exclusive to STEM. A 2018 study on sexual harassment by Nancy Chi Cantalupo and William C. Kidder found that one in 10 women graduate students at major research universities report having been sexually harassed by a faculty member, with incidents occurring across all disciplines.

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Even in 2021, being a woman remains a problem for faculty and students alike. But are women really any better off now that teaching has gone online? A quick Google search on “Zoom and gender” suggests that, in reality, the Zoomisphere is just as fraught with discrimination as in-person workplaces and classrooms. Countless recent articles have explored how women struggle to speak up; worse still, digital platforms aren’t a prophylactic for ridiculously unacceptable behaviour – as a few highly publicised incidents reveal.

Still, if you dig a bit further, there appear to be a few upsides to moving online. Even if a small minority of men continue to find creative ways to behave badly, Zoom does solve one problem. As Cantalupo and Kidder’s study found, half of sexual harassment complaints on campus include unwanted physical contact. Zoom evidently makes such incidents impossible.

Zoom also eliminates many of the side conversations that once happened before and after class and in common spaces on campus. To be clear, most of these conversations are welcome moments of community-building and informal networking. Unfortunately, for women, they also happen to be when most unwanted verbal harassment takes place. Now, if unwanted verbal harassments happen at all, at least it is more likely to be recorded in some form.

Another liberating side-effect of videoconferencing platforms is that size doesn’t matter. As one of the young women I’m teaching this semester put it: “On Zoom, everyone is about an inch and a half. What could be a better equaliser?”

Being confined to such a small amount of screen space isn’t just advantageous if you’re 5ft 1in (1.5m) and struggle to tower above the podium at the front of a large lecture hall. Although many women in the general population initially appeared to be delaying plans to get pregnant amid what one study called “the changing economic and social environment” of the pandemic, some women faculty have since decided to take advantage of the fact that it is now possible to get through an entire pregnancy without ever having to reveal their bodies to students or co-workers.

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One of the most surprising effects of moving higher education online is that while women may be under less scrutiny in the classroom (at least from the head down), the opposite seems to hold for men.

A recent study by two researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that male faculty feel more objectified on Zoom. Oddly, they also appear more likely than their female colleagues to adopt fake Zoom backgrounds. The researchers speculate that, more than being just a fun distraction, all those dungeons and Milky Way vistas are a form of “protective camouflage”, adopted to help male faculty deal with Zoom’s “glaringly objectified space”.

Ultimately, though, it will take more than anecdotal accounts to assess online teaching’s impact on gendered classroom dynamics. A large-scale comparative study of teaching evaluations for on-campus versus online courses may be a useful place to start investigating. But if the anecdotes are borne out, women will at least have derived some liberation from being locked down for so long.

Kate Eichhorn is an associate professor and chair of culture and media studies at The New School in New York City.

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