A Tip For Women Working From Home: Turn The Camera Off

For women employees feeling the grind of keeping up appearances, this is perhaps the most salient tip for working from home of all: Simply decline being on video.

A Tip For Women Working From Home: Turn The Camera Off
“Always having to be ‘on’ and perform is exhausting, and for women, it’s much harder.” (Duncan Rawlinson / Flickr)

When COVID-19 closed shops and sent non-essential workers home, business websites, HR blogs, and media of all stripes turned out content filled with work-from-home tips. Tech consultants, who had been doing it for ages, chimed in, as did companies who already had a remote culture. Fast forward to a year into the pandemic, and the work-from-home think pieces keep coming.

At its core, most of the WFH advice has been given in the context of trying to replicate in-person work. Yet, paired with the nearly overnight ubiquity of the video call, trying to apply the framework of an office to kitchen tables, living rooms and re-purposed closets by its very nature carries through the same pressure to perform femininity as legacy workplaces do.

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For example, in November, The Muse encouraged “clothes suitable for public viewing.” INC brought up that fact that Muriel Siebert, the first woman to work at the New York Stock Exchange, wore pantyhose even when she wasn’t on the floor. Countless publications extolled, and continue to do so, the value of having a dedicated workspace and encouraged changing out of sweats into regular business attire.

Suffice to say a lot has changed since 1967 when Siebert began trading, but considering that Fortune reported as recently as 2016 that women who wear makeup actually make more money, perhaps not as much as we would like to think. Forbes not so helpfully reminded readers not do laundry, dishes, reorganize the spice rack, or be distracted by watching The View—the demographic for which skews towards women who are 50 or older, as reported by Neilson.

Tiffany Streifel, a senior program manager at a major tech company, noted that while she is frequently on video calls, the success of group meetings is not defined by the visual aspect of it.

“The camera does not tell me that someone is engaged,” Streifel said. “Their ability to execute on their deliverables does.”

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Kari DePhillips, CEO of The Content Factory, had already calculated how many unpaid hours she had lost commuting and “getting ready” for a traditional, in-office job. The damage to productivity clocked in at 104 days every five years—or 500 hours annually.

When she founded her company, she did so with a work-from-anywhere policy and a culture that rejected video meetings unless specifically requested by a client. During this pandemic, those requests are ticking up. DePhillips noted that The Content Factory’s policy is always to give the customer the experience they prefer, but added that “the increase in, and new expectation of, video calls definitely stresses some of my employees out, particularly those with small kids.”

This push to digitally reproduce face-to-face interactions is indeed challenging, and the proliferation of tips related to grooming and space trot out the same old tropes about presenting in a certain way, all under the guise of professionalism.

At the same time, the constant cautioning to stay away from second-shift chores is at best insulting to actual professionals who are aware of how to manage their time, and at worst riddled with offensive assumptions about what the people who do that work prioritize in their day-to-day. It’s unlikely that anyone needs to be told to finish their projects rather than iron that sheets. All the while, the possibility that a supervisor will require a video call lurks with the same persistence of Big Brother-style surveillance.

Even Stanford University, in a online video with seven tips for remote meeting inclusivity, focused five of those appearance, like not wearing plaid, and led with turning video on and keeping it on.

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“Burnt Out and Over It”

While it is true that in lockdown it can sometimes be nice to see human faces, even if on a screen, given that we have entire media ecosystems built around text and audio—think of book publishing and radio, for instance—video does not seem especially necessary to effectively communicate, nor inclusive. Put this in context of the extra load put on those employees who then must also conform to cultural notions about what looking or dressing like a woman is, video is another stressor for a work force already pushed to the breaking point. What might be more useful, is direction for meeting organizers to clearly define agendas, call on every meeting participant, and encourage engagement by leading relevant discussion.

When she first took a job as a chief strategist for a digital agency, Lore Zeledon valued the flexibility of the role and enjoyed collaborating with a global team. Yet, as the pandemic raged on, she found herself getting more and more fatigued.

“Always having to be ‘on’ and perform is exhausting, and for women, it’s much harder. We now have the added layer of wondering if we look friendly, if we are smiling enough. Should we talk with our hands, or keep them by our sides? What does our background say? When kids pop up, it’s cute when it is Dad on camera, but it’s seen as a distraction when it is Mom.”

“I Turn My Camera Off”

“Being a Black women in a senior leadership position already comes with self-induced pressure, and the reality is there is still a ton of work that needs to happen in corporate America to eliminate biases,” said a longtime executive human resources manager who preferred to remain anonymous. While she noted that in a high-visibility role, there was some expectation of video participation, ultimately, there is an extremely elegant solution: “I counsel women to make the adjustments they need, including turning video off.”

For female employees feeling the grind of keeping up appearances, this is perhaps the most salient tip for working from home of all: Simply decline being on video. When a manager asks for the camera to be switched on, it’s worth remembering that it is fine to say no. After all, if this is really about professionalism, that’s a decision one can make for herself.

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Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel If the Ice Had Held and the collection What If We Were Somewhere Else. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Business Insider and Ms. and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.