Zoom Anxiety is Real: Why Work Video Calls Are Harder for Women than Men


Zoom Anxiety is Real: Why Work Video Calls Are Harder for Women than Men

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Like a lot of people in our brave new world, I’ve been out of my office for most of 2020. Even though I miss the energy of a real office and get bored with being interminably stuck in my house, there are undeniable perks to the remote working life. There’s no hideous Mumbai commute to contend with, no one to stop you from taking an extra long lunch, naptime is frequent, and snacktime is perpetual.

It’s enough to make me wonder if I could ever go back to the antiquated days of slogging it to the office in person – especially when I consider the prospect of wearing proper pants, or God forbid, a bra. The work-from-home wardrobe is all about cosy sweats and unflattering nighties, featuring plenty of elasticated waistbands and soft, pajama-appropriate fabrics (all the better to take those naps!) Perhaps that’s why the dreaded Zoom call is so universally offensive, because it comes as such a rude interruption to this relaxed way of life.

The Zoom meeting has become an ubiquitous — and sometimes even necessary  —  part of the work-from-home culture. Particularly for women, these calls are often fraught with anxiety over the way we’re meant to look in order to be “professional” and “presentable” even from our own homes. And that’s when you have to go back to a pre-lockdown ritual: thinking about your appearance.

I’ve always enjoyed the process of getting ready for work, putting my best face forward to greet the day ahead. It helps me get in the right frame of mind and makes me feel more like myself — or at least the version I want to present to the world. Yet, during work-from-home, it’s the first time I’ve never had to spare a thought for how I’m coming across in the workplace. Suddenly, the Zoom calls where I will see and be seen seem exhausting, as if I never realised how much time and energy I was spending on getting ready before.

Nor am I alone in this ambivalence towards dressing up for Zoom. Not only are we now stuck in a state of inertia, too used to being gharelu couch potatoes to bother with getting dolled up, but the rules for work-from-home fashion are totally different. Who can forget the infamous occasions where Zoom-call unfortunates who are all business from the waist up have literally been caught with their pants down?

Zoom even has a touchup tool to ensure that we look just perfect enough at all times.

While men are allowed enough slack to get away with a week-old stubble or a thatchy-looking haircut, for women, it’s become about walking the line between casual and sloppy, effortless and lazy, “natural” and sickly with dark circles. Zoom even has a touchup tool to ensure that we look just perfect enough at all times. Then there is the gentle awkwardness of being the only one in the meeting who is groomed and made up, while everyone else has apparently just popped in from a jog or rolled out of bed.

In an essay titled “The inescapable pressure of being a woman on Zoom” on Vox by health writer Leslie Goldman, the author notes that even if women wanted to put in the effort to get camera-ready for Zoom calls, the upheaval in our personal lives during 2020 means that we might not have the bandwidth for it. She writes, “Even if our inner feminist wanted to look dewy-skinned and salon-blown-out on camera, unfair beauty standards be damned, that might not be emotionally possible right now.”

Besides our own looks, we stress about our backgrounds, wincing at every stray coffee cup or pressure cooker whistle. For women, who for so long have had to pretend that their home lives take place in a different dimension from work, Zoom calls are a harbinger of fresh anxieties. But with the year we’ve all had in 2020, we can collectively agree that we’ve got enough to worry about without adding Zoom fashion etiquette to our plates. Bring on the bird’s-nest hair and comfy t-shirts! And when all else fails, there’s always the magic of the Zoom touchup filter.