Much of the work of higher ed occurs during meetings. Nowadays, that means that much of the work of higher ed lives in Zoom.
Meetings do much to reveal -- and often reinforce -- status hierarchies. In face-to-face meetings, we often observe the highest-status member of the meeting sitting at the head of the table. How often one speaks and the degree to which someone is interrupted (or does the interrupting) is usually a function of one’s position in the pecking order.
When high-status individuals speak, you will see the other participants in the meeting nod their heads along in agreement. We consciously and subconsciously exhibit a range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors in meetings designed to align us with high-status participants.
How do these status-revealing and -reinforcing meeting behaviors translate to Zoom?
What happens when university employees are nine months into meeting almost exclusively online? Three observations:
The degree of one’s institutional power and the density of one’s schedule seem highly correlated. The higher one’s status, the more demands on one’s time. Hours worked is also a proxy for institutional status. The bigger the job in terms of responsibility, the bigger the job in terms of hours. This is all reflected in the length of Zoom meetings. High-status people will participate in Zoom meetings mostly when they are at the center of the conversation. They will be less likely to attend information Zoom meetings and more likely to join in (or run) decision-making meetings.
Being late to Zoom meetings is a new fact of life. We all have back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings. Sometimes, these meetings run over. It may be easier for a high-status person to both extricate herself from a meeting in progress and also to be acceptably late to a scheduled Zoom meeting. We assume that high-status people in academia are exceptionally busy, and nobody faults them for leaving early (or on time) or coming late.
Wearing what one likes is a privilege. Put another way, only the most privileged can wear whatever they want. If you are in a Zoom meeting with a colleague wearing a T-shirt, the chances are that he or she (more likely he) is higher in the academic status hierarchy. This observation breaks down above a certain level of campus authority. Academic leaders seem to be continuing to dress on Zoom much like they dressed on campus. For everyone else, however, the way we dress on Zoom has become more variable. Power dynamics are at play when some folks on Zoom feel enabled to dress down.
There are doubtless numerous other ways in which status, power and privilege are reflected in Zoom meetings among academics. If we know how status differentials play out in Zoom, we can take steps to minimize them. The quality of one’s ideas is poorly correlated with one’s place in the status hierarchy. The best thinking often comes from the most junior and marginalized members of a community.
We can overcome power imbalances in Zoom meetings by recognizing that these differentials exist and then by taking active steps to transcend those inequalities. Those with more institutional power can speak less and listen more. We can question norms around having everyone turn on their cameras. We can explicitly equalize speaking time and priority by going down the list of attendees in choosing the order of speaking.
We can choose to utilize Zoom to surmount, rather than reinforce, our institutional status hierarchies.