What I Learned About the Gender Gap From One Zoom Call

We still have a long way to go

A photo of a mom working on her laptop while her son sits in her lap, she looks busy and tired.
Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

While at a virtual scientific conference earlier this month, something endearing occurred. A neuroscientist accepting an award delivered his lecture via teleconference with his two young daughters playing in the background. Though he was clearly distracted, he delivered his entire presentation, even with them laughing, screaming, and trying to talk to him. At the end, the girls yelled, “Yay Daddy! Are you done now?”

In that moment, I was smiling. I thought, “How wonderful to see a dad willing to show himself so vulnerable.” Weeks later, I thought how I would never do such a thing — have a Zoom call, let alone give a presentation, with my two daughters in the background. And then I realized that over the same time period, I had been on Zoom calls with several dads introducing their kids, but not a single mom doing so. It’s anecdotal for sure, but why dads and not moms?

I believe it’s one of many gender gaps that persist in everyday culture — something I take for granted and even joke about with my husband, like when he used to get “oohs and aahs” bringing our baby daughter to the grocery store with many offers of help. I got no such treatment! These gaps, while seemingly trivial, get to the heart of the reality many women have lived through, and one that’s become even painfully more evident for me in hearing and reading so many stories from other women over time.

When men show off their kids at work, it’s a sign of strength that they can balance both; but I fear that for women, it’s still seen as a weakness.

Throughout my career, I have often taken care to separate my professional life from my personal one. Especially after having children, I did not want my peers or clients to see me as a mom first; I wanted them to see me as a writer, a consultant, a business owner. In recent years — and especially now with everyone getting more real during the pandemic with work from home — that approach has blurred, but it remains an insecurity. I suspect other women may feel the same way. When men show their kids at work, it’s a sign of strength that they can balance both; but I fear that for women it’s still seen as a weakness.

I suppose this dates back to the early days of my career and a couple of specific events. In my first reporting job, I will never forget negotiating for a higher salary and being told by an older gentleman that the big boss did not see a reason I needed more money. He told my supervisor: “What does a young woman need with extra money?” He was known for paying the men at the publishing organization more because they “had families to support.”

Many years later, after having my first daughter, I interviewed with two women for a freelance writing and editing job. I remember sitting in their office while they asked me why I had a gap in time in my resume. I explained that I had taken time off to have a baby but was enthusiastically ready to work again. At that time, I had a more than decade-long portfolio under my belt. They then spent the rest of the interview asking questions like “How do we know you won’t be doing work at odd hours because you have a baby?” I remember regretting I had mentioned ever having a baby, but I didn’t even realize how inappropriate it was that they said that. (I did not get the job and will never know why.)

I’m currently working on publicity for a new independent film called Picture a Scientist. In it, the filmmakers depict the gender gap in the sciences as an iceberg. It’s an analogy they borrowed from a well-known report on women in the sciences — in which the big cases of sexual harassment are just the tip of the iceberg, while countless other slights against us and the adjustments we each make loom much larger below the surface.

From being mistaken for a secretary or an intern to being on the receiving end of highly inappropriate communications, like many women, I have faced a range of challenges that appear solely due to my gender. And I have heard some truly horrifying stories from female friends and colleagues including things that happened while I was working on a team with them, but which I only learned about much later.

The current pandemic seems to be widening the gap further. With so many people working from home, the lines are blurring between personal and work life leading to new forms of harassment and bias. The differences in Zoom calls for men and women symbolize something much greater — the added burden many women are experiencing in balancing childcare and their careers. I know that when my kids interrupt me on a call, it’s because they need something, not because they are just saying hi. The expectation is different with their dad. In my family, we are fortunate we can both work from home, probably indefinitely, but what if the schools remain closed, and at least one parent must return to the office? Will that be mom or dad?

Women have been trying for so long to gain basic equity, and while we live now in a more equitable time than any prior generation, it still seems insurmountable.

I find myself trying to imagine what it would take to simply smash the iceberg so that it is no longer an impediment to my daughters. Women have been trying for so long to gain basic equity, and while we live now in a more equitable time than any prior generation, it still seems insurmountable. When even I have such a different reaction to a man versus a woman showing their kids on a Zoom call there’s clearly a lot of work to be done to cut through our societal and individual implicit biases and break through to a new world.

As a writer, I believe that telling these stories again and again to make them part of our collective consciousness and memory is the only way true change will occur. But it’s a long road that requires us all to see the full extent of the challenge — from the tip of the iceberg to the murky waters that sit below — and then be willing to take action.

And I believe it starts and grows in small places like the language we use with our daughters and the way they perceive me and their dad — the way they see other women and men out in the world. It starts with me sharing my stories directly with young women in science and communications and mentoring them so that they know that they are not alone and can arm themselves. And I think it also starts with men amplifying the voices of women on their teams and advocating for more diversity in their teams, as well as standing up for others when they witness wrongdoing.

This is particularly important for women of color who are disproportionately affected in the workplace. As the world grapples with systemic racism, there is a growing need to amplify the voices of Black scientists and expose wrongdoing. As Raychelle Burks, a Black chemist at American University, says in Picture a Scientist: “You cannot do everything on your own; you need enough of your allies to make something happen.”

There is still a long way to go, but scientists must work together to effect change in the culture of science for women and minorities.

Part of that change perhaps also starts with me being brave enough to show my kids on a Zoom call — to show that I can proudly be both a mom and a professional. If this pandemic has reinforced one thing to me, it’s that in the face of a crisis, however challenging, we cannot abandon who we fundamentally are and what we stand for. Now is the best time to smash the iceberg and clear the path for our children and future generations.

Lisa is president and founder of SciComm Services, a science communications content development and consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., area.

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