The coronavirus pandemic has brought dramatic changes to the lives of people the world over. For many of us, living in a restricted environment has seen us adapt to a new way of working – working from home. And our work at home involves, to a large extent, a virtual workplace. Our contact with colleagues and clients is via email, teleconference or videoconference. Large parts of our day are spent in meetings via Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype or some other online platform. Even our work social life is mediated through a computer screen – Zoom drinks at 5 p.m., anyone?
The changes have been particularly profound for some professions, where the work that has ordinarily been done in a specific physical environment has necessarily been transformed in the virtual environment. Think of teachers, for example, no longer teaching students in a classroom. Or doctors engaging in “telemedicine”, not able to have a physical consultation with their patient.
I am a barrister. My pre-pandemic work day involved conferring with clients, witnesses or other barristers in my “chambers” (a fancy word for my office), racing off to court and racing back for more conferences. My chambers is on a floor of barristers, in a building full of barristers. The building is conveniently located across the road from various court houses, in the court precinct in my home town. I have always considered proximity to the courts and to other barristers an essential part of my working life.
I am a barrister.
The virtual world has changed all of that. I now work from home. My court appearances take place by videoconference, with judges and other barristers (and witnesses) appearing from different locations. All of my meetings – whether with clients, witnesses or other barristers – take place remotely.
But this essay is not about the physical changes brought about by working from home. This essay is about how the virtual workplace has changed the physicality of my work in another way, a way that has interesting implications for women in the workplace.
A barrister’s work is not just intellectual – it is also physical. When you appear in court on behalf of your client, with your opponents at the other side of the “bar table” and the judge in front of you “on the bench”, your physical presence is important. The way you stand, the way you move, the way you carry yourself – all of these things can convey confidence in your client’s position. When you address the judge, the eye contact you make and the way you modulate your voice matters. The same applies when dealing with witnesses: the way you look at a witness, your hand gestures, whether you raise your voice or not, pausing after a witness gives an answer that helps your case – all can be used to great effect by a good barrister in the courtroom.
When you appear in court on behalf of your client, with your opponents at the other side of the “bar table” and the Judge in front of you “on the bench”, your physical presence is important.
The physical side of the job has advantaged male barristers over female barristers. Not because women are less good at the physical things, but because the physical side of a barrister’s work has been viewed through a gendered lens, and to women’s disadvantage. When clients think of a barrister it is a male image that comes to mind. So too, many of the physical characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) associated with being a great barrister are considered “male” characteristics. A “commanding” presence in the courtroom is often associated with the notion of a tall man, rather than a smaller woman. A client may want, for example, an “aggressive cross-examiner”, and will often think a woman barrister is less likely to be aggressive in the court room. Deeper voices, associated with men rather than women, tend to be considered more authoritative.
What difference, then, does it make for women barristers now that we don’t physically appear in the courtroom at all?
The first time I appeared in the virtual courtroom, I was struck by the fact that all the barristers were suddenly reduced to faces on a screen. Quite small faces, in fact. Our bodies were irrelevant. Our height, our weight, how we dressed – none of it mattered. What mattered most of all was the substance – what was being said by the little face on the screen, and how well the person speaking could get their message across in this changed setting.
Our bodies were irrelevant. Our height, our weight, how we dressed – none of it mattered.
A lifetime of experiencing myself and others by reference to physicality – the size and shape of a person, their clothing, their size in comparison to my own – suddenly none of it mattered.
It also occurred to me that in the virtual hearing, the things that might impact your effectiveness as an advocate are more likely to be things within your control. For example, the clarity of your voice is more likely to be affected by the quality of your microphone (or whether you are wearing a headset) than whether your God-given voice is deep or not. When cross-examining a witness in the virtual hearing, it is hard to see how the physical stature of the cross-examiner will make any difference. The effectiveness of the cross-examination will be derived from the content of the cross-examination, the skill of the questioner – physicality as a relevant factor is greatly diminished, perhaps non-existent.
How does this play out in other environments?
I teach classes, both to junior barristers and to law students. In the past, when teaching law students face-to-face, I have noticed that women were less likely to speak up in class than men. I took steps to address this issue (for example, by calling on students and making sure I was calling on an equal number of men and women). In the virtual classroom, I have not seen as much gender-based difference in the identity of those asking questions. Why is that? Is it because students who are not physically in a room together are less likely to worry about what others might think of their question? Certainly, if another student doesn’t think much of your question, you’re less likely to pick up on that fact in the virtual setting. Perhaps another factor is that it is arguably easier to assert yourself, to step out of your comfort zone and ask a question in class, when you are sitting at home in your own (familiar) environment.
Is it because students who are not physically in a room together are less likely to worry about what others might think of their question?
Over the years, one of the reasons often given for women not advancing in the workplace is that they are less likely to speak up in meetings, less likely to assert themselves in a group setting. (Of course, many women would tell you that they do speak up, but their ideas are ignored until repeated by a male colleague). Will we see, in the virtual world, more women feeling freer to speak up, to be “assertive”, and therefore improve our prospects of career progression?
Will women also benefit from the reduced focus on physical appearance (including clothing) in the virtual workplace? It is an enduring reality for women that we are often judged in the workplace (and in just about every other place) for the way we dress. Women are criticised for being too feminine or too masculine, for wearing too much make-up or too little, for wearing heels that are too high or for not wearing high heels at all. God forbid if a woman turned up at a professional workplace without a bra, or in a sleeveless shirt without having shaved her armpits. In the virtual workplace, these societal expectations feel largely irrelevant. No one can see if you’re wearing shoes at all, let alone heels. Indeed, the way you dress your bottom half is entirely inconsequential. As for your top half, depending on your camera angle you can participate in a meeting with only your face and the top of your shoulders showing, revealing very little else. As a result, in the virtual environment, there is a greater degree of uniformity in the way we appear to one another. The way we dress – as faces in boxes on a screen – matters very little.
As a result, in the virtual environment, there is a greater degree of uniformity in the way we appear to one another. The way we dress – as faces in boxes on a screen – matters very little.
The fact that less attention is being given to what people are wearing at work also means less need for a range of different work outfits in the wardrobe. Think of the money women are saving, spending less on clothes for work. For me, the time I am saving not having to get dressed “for work” every day (or having to think about getting dressed “for work” every day) and the time I’ve saved shopping for “work clothes” is already starting to reap its rewards. These benefits may be hard to measure but they are real, nonetheless.
There is no doubt that working from home during the pandemic has brought with it a range of difficulties that have disproportionately affected women. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, recently published research showing that working mothers in their survey took on greater responsibility for childcare and housework than their male (working) partners. Once children are back at school and life starts returning to some kind of new normal, many of us may find ourselves still working virtually for quite some time (perhaps forever). There will be real issues for women to confront in that new reality – but what about the benefits we might also see, going forward?
There is no doubt that working from home during the pandemic has brought with it a range of difficulties that have disproportionately affected women.
My partner is a computer scientist by training and is very interested in virtual reality (VR). In discussing my experiences in the virtual workplace with him, he pointed out that in the not-too-distant future we will be participating in our virtual workplace using VR. And we’ll be able to choose what our VR bodies will look like. If we want to participate in a work meeting as a tall man, we’ll be able to do so. If we want to see what our working life is like in a completely different physical form, we’ll be able to do so. He recently chose the form of a banana for a family catch-up over Microsoft Teams. Needless to say, the banana created much amusement and no one (particularly his mother) could take him seriously. But the banana underscored two things for me: first, that the way we are perceived by people is still very much connected to the way we look (even for those who have known us for a long time); and second, that in the virtual world we can influence how we appear to others in a way that hasn’t previously been possible.
For women, who have been burdened by the societal preoccupation with their appearance for the longest time, the virtual world could bring unexpected liberation. How this plays out will be interesting. Will gendered stereotypes linger, leading women to choose male bodies in VR in order to be taken seriously? Or will the virtual world make physicality less important overall, such that it doesn’t matter at all if one is a woman or a man, or tall or short, or big or small – what matters is what one has to say (even if one is a banana)?
For women, who have been burdened by the societal preoccupation with their appearance for the longest time, the virtual world could bring unexpected liberation.
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