Are your virtual meetings falling victim to bias?

Many of us have now been working from home for weeks, with no fixed date in sight for a return to the office.

During this extraordinary time, video conferencing has become part of our daily lives, with services such as Zoom enabling us to stay in touch and collaborate with colleagues. While it’s great that these services are available widely at low or no cost, there are downsides too; ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been experienced by many of us, and it has also become evident that video conferencing can lead to unintentional bias.

Janice Gassam at Forbes has reported on three ways that virtual meetings can fall victim to bias, and how bias can be mitigated.

Your background

Gassam writes: “In a utopic world, the area where you video conference will be well-lit, with a picturesque background. The reality of the situation is that many people for different reasons must teleconference from places like their bedrooms, kitchens and maybe even cars. What’s in your background could elicit bias.

“When in the workplace, it’s easier to uphold a level of privacy. Once you are on a video conference while working from home, some of that goes out the window. Onlookers are able to see parts of your home that they have never seen before and they can get a deeper glimpse into your identity, interests and other seemingly benign characteristics.”

Gassam recommends that employees be mindful of their background and location for video meetings, while employers should encourage the use of virtual backgrounds on Zoom, as this could provide uniformity and alleviate some of the background bias during video calls.

Wi-Fi connection

Speaking about the US specifically, Gassam points out that the assumption is that everyone has a strong, stable Wi-Fi connection, but that is not the case for everyone. A Pew Research Center study found that in 2019, 73% of Americans had broadband, or high-speed, internet service at home.

Therefore, some of your employees may be part of the 27% that do not have high-speed internet at home. Connection issues could mean they cannot participate fully in essential meetings. Managers should assess the communication needs of their team and whether daily video conferences, for example, are absolutely necessary, or if other means could be used to keep in touch. To ensure everyone is included, it is also a good idea to consult with your employees on their preferred communication methods.


Gassam notes that: “a growing concern for Black employees is appearance and professionalism while video conferencing. One consequence of working from home is that the workday hours have been adapted. With the perceived extra time that everyone supposedly has, there may be a greater expectation for video conference attendance and participation. For many Black employees, this is an added stressor, since some have found that their hair routines have been modified because of COVID-19.

“For example, one’s night-time routine may now consist of spending an hour or two twisting their hair for greater manageability since the hair salon is closed. Then the question becomes, will you look unprofessional if you show up to a video conference with two-strand twists in your hair? Black hair is often deemed as unacceptable by society’s standards. The paradox is that there is still a level of professionalism that is expected during these teleconferences. Figuring out how to style hair in a ‘professional way’ is a growing concern for many Black employees.”

Gassam says more discussion about this issue needs to take place for greater understanding to be had and to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions about Black hair.

These are just a few examples of how video conferencing could lead to unintentional bias. It is important that we acknowledge it, remain alert to it, and take steps where necessary to mitigate it for the benefit of your workforce and operations.

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