Challenge gendered behaviours

By Natalie Hearn

This International Women’s Day, Natalie Hearn challenges what she considers to be gendered behaviours, especially those encountered on Zoom calls.

The theme this year for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge, and I choose to challenge the gendered actions and behaviours I sometimes see and hear on Zoom calls.

For those of us lucky enough to continue working throughout lockdown, we have had to adapt our behaviour, communication and culture to a virtual world of work. In reality, this means spending much of our time on Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls.

Many women are very aware of certain types of gendered actions, such as the micro-behaviours that reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypes. In a previous life and a widely experienced example would have been the only woman in the conference room being designated to serve the tea. I’m sure it is better now for women than it was 50 years ago, but I’m almost certain that all women in today’s workplace has an example of when they’ve experienced gendered behaviour.

I think in some ways (but by no means all), face-to-face interactions make it easier to be a better person in these situations. It is difficult to look someone in the eye and treat them poorly – though many do still manage it.

However, in our new virtual world – are we making it easier than ever to foster good workplace behaviour? If you don’t have to look someone in the eye, or see their face, does discriminatory, prejudiced and gendered behaviour become easier to exhibit?

Though we may now only serve tea to ourselves at home, moving to remote working still allows some micro-behaviours to occur and, I think, it makes some behaviour worse in some situations. When we exclusively communicate with people remotely, we’re unable to see the detail in their facial expressions or body language, and that’s of course only if they have their camera switched on. If you can’t see someone’s face during a conversation, I think it is easier to exhibit poor behaviour. It is easier to cut across someone or talk down to them if you only hear their voice.

Being interrupted or talked over is something everyone experiences at some point. I’m aware I do it to others on occasion and I am really trying to improve that. But I encourage you all to observe whether this occurs to certain people more than others. For example, I think it happens to junior colleagues more often than senior colleagues, and I think it happens more frequently to women than to men. I believe this has gotten worse over Zoom as we can’t rely on body language and non-verbal cues to identify when someone else wants to speak.

If this type of behaviour is happening more often, I question why? It could be that stress is a significant factor, and when we’re stressed we can quickly shortcut friendly behaviour. For many of us, our stress buckets are fuller than ever – with the background of a global pandemic, uncertainty in the future, lack of physical interaction during lockdown, and worrying about the health of our friends and families. I can only imagine the additional stresses that childcare brings.

For this International Women’s Day, I therefore choose to challenge gendered behaviour, such as:

  1. An email that begins with “guys” to a mix-gendered group.
  2. Presuming a person’s pronouns, rather than defaulting to they/them/theirs.
  3. Assuming a female colleague will undertake secretarial duties unrelated to her role (notetaking, calendar invites etc.).
  4. Someone being consistently interrupted by others.
  5. Someone being ignored when they speak.

Most of the time, I know this is unintentional, but it could also be likely due to unconscious biases where we treat women and men differently without realising it.

How do you challenge these behaviours? I know even a small challenge is daunting. Previously, I have found a gentle email to someone explaining your thoughts can take away the nervousness on both sides. In addition, a suggestion from an inclusion seminar I attended, was to call out the behaviour at the time it occurs through making light of what they have said. This is certainly not appropriate for every instance, but if you imagine someone refers to “guys” on Zoom, you could say “we’re not all guys here remember!”. It could make the point, but without any serious confrontation.

Whether conscious or unconscious, these micro-behaviours have the effect of reminding us of gender stereotypes and the role that we are presumed to play in the situation. By challenging these behaviours, we can prevent them occurring again and make our workplace more inclusive for all.


Natalie Hearn Deloitte

Natalie Hearn, Senior Consultant, Consulting

Natalie is senior consultant in Deloitte’s Consulting practice. She leads the delivery craft in the Product and Delivery Guild for TechWorks and is currently the release manager on a digital transformation programme in higher education. She also has a number of programme management responsibilities, including technical delivery management through SCRUM, risk management and programme planning, and her specialism is in user-centred and service design experience.

Natalie is a Cymru & South West GLOBE Ally representative within Deloitte's office in Bristol.

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