Skepticism

Study: Why Zoom Meetings are Worse for Women

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Remember when the whole pandemic thing really got going in early 2020, and most of us at least kind of tried to quarantine? And then we missed our friends, and a company was like “Hey, we have an app for that!” So we all joined this “Zoom” thing, even though Facetime was right there and let you put funny stickers on top of your face.

By the summer of 2020 I was being invited to about ten different Zoom “parties” per week and guys, I could not handle it. It was great at first to be able to see my pals and catch up and socialize but even though I could do it in my pajamas while watching baseball on mute in the background it was somehow so much harder than real-life socializing. I’m considered something of an extravert and in the beforetimes I could handle maybe two social engagements per week, tops. Preferably not within 24 hours of each other. But a Zoom happy hour? Give me one of those per month. Maybe two if I’m feeling particularly sociable.

And so at some point I had to start turning down opportunities to hang out with friends, and I felt so bad about it! While it became easier to turn down activities in real life (“sorry I can’t come to your birthday party but I don’t want to engage in an activity that will end up killing someone’s grandma”), it became much harder to turn down activities online: “Sorry I can’t come to your Zoom birthday party but my modem exploded?”

I honestly thought it was just me, because I know that loads of people working from home, especially teachers and students, spend an entire day on Zoom. Surely it can’t be that bad for everyone, right? It turns out there’s data out there to suggest that yes, actually, it IS that bad and worse for a whole lot of people. There’s a new study that was published this month called “The fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings: A within-person field experiment,” and when I started reading it I noticed that they are building off of previous studies dating back to mid-2020 that I completely missed, I guess because I was too busy thinking about herd immunity and Fox News and Dr. Drew and whether or not 5G is the cause of the pandemic. You know, your basic early days of the pandemic stuff. So, time for me to catch up!

In mid-2020, Microsoft researchers hooked subjects up to EEGs and made them do Zoom meetings, and found that brainwaves associated with anxiety spiked around 30 or 40 minutes in, which didn’t happen during in-person meetings. Throughout the rest of that year and into 2021 as work from home orders stayed in place around the world, researchers published several papers confirming that yep, videoconferencing fatigue is a real thing and it sucks ass. Even as people were spending less time in meetings, they were getting more stressed out by those meetings.

At that point, researchers began wondering why this happens, and that’s where things get interesting. One study from March 2021 found “that turning off the microphone and having higher feelings of group belongingness are related to lower postvideoconference fatigue. Additional analyses suggest that higher levels of group belongingness are the most consistent protective factor against videoconference fatigue.”

Another paper from February of 2021 argued the cause might be “nonverbal overload,” identifying four possible factors: “excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze (which we usually reserve for close relationships), cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.” However, that paper was merely a well-argued opinion piece that had no hard data to back it up.

Luckily, at that same time someone was testing nearly this exact hypothesis. A group of researchers developed the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue scale, which led to them determining that Zoom meetings don’t just suck in a general way that tires you out, but in five distinct flavors of exhaustion: general, social, emotional, visual, and motivational fatigue. Fun!

They then administered their scale to 10,591 subjects and compared it with the same nonverbal mechanisms mentioned in the other paper from February: “mirror anxiety, being physically trapped, hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces, and the cognitive load from producing and interpreting nonverbal cues.”

They found that yes, all of those nonverbal mechanisms explained the resulting fatigue. But they also found that women had it way worse than men. This happened in part because women were subjected to longer meetings, but even after controlling for that the difference was still there. And it remained even after controlling for personality (extraverts experienced less fatigue), age (older people had less fatigue), context (social engagements were less fatiguing than work), and race (white people were less fatigued than other races). Why was that?

When they drilled down on the data, it became clear that one nonverbal mechanism was way worse for women than for men: mirror anxiety. The main problem was that little window that shows you what YOU look like during the meeting – women hyper-fixated on it and it made them super self-conscious throughout the meeting, which is, you know, exhausting.

All of which brings me to this latest study, published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Psychologists decided to really dig into the roll the camera plays in Zoom fatigue. They recruited about 100 people who were working from home and had them spend two weeks keeping their camera on during meetings and then two weeks keeping their camera off. At the end of their workday, they answered questions about how they were feeling.

Sure enough, they found that people were more fatigued after keeping their cameras on, and yep, women had it significantly worse than men. Interestingly, the researchers also found this to be true of new employees. What do women and new employees have in common? Both groups tend to spend extra energy policing their own behavior at work because they think (or know) that their coworkers view them as being less competent. It takes serious energy to make sure that you look and act the right way. It’s even more exhausting when it feels like everyone is staring at you all the time (as those previous studies found – even if you know logically that people aren’t staring at you for the entire meeting, your stupid ape brain sees a bunch of people literally staring right at you and it panics). And finally it’s even more exhausting when you can see and hyperfocus and hyper criticize your own mirror image.

One issue I have with this study is that it was overwhelmingly white. Remember that previous study that found that white people were less fatigued than other races? In the same way researchers drilled down on why women had it worse than men, they should do the same for minorities versus white people. I assume it’s going to be the same as with women: minorities feel a greater insecurity in the workplace and will spend more energy policing their own look and behavior. But it would be nice if researchers cared to look into it.

So! While I personally think it’s great that so many companies are continuing to allow workers to stay home, it’s worth understanding that there are several ways in which the new normal can exacerbate inequality. In the meantime, try turning off your camera (or at least turning off the mirror view if the app allows it, as Zoom does). And of course, before you send out that meeting invitation ask yourself: could this Zoom be an email?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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