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What? Corona Is a Gender Leveler?

Vivia Chen

June 8, 2020

Golfers-960917_1920“You know what’s refreshing?” asks a senior female lawyer who works in the financial sector. “They’re not going anywhere. They can’t go to steak dinners, their favorite cigar bars or fly off to the Masters. And they’re not dragging their golf bags into the office and running out in the middle of the afternoon for ‘client development.’ They’re stuck—like we are.”

She adds, “Let’s see how long they can last!”

The coronavirus as an agent for gender equality? That’s probably not what you’re hearing, but some women contend that the lockdown is actually leveling the playing field in the workplace—and they’re crowing about it.

Not only has COVID-19 thrown a monkey wrench at all those favorite male activities, but it’s forcing men and women to interact with each other on a much more equal basis at work.

Take those Zoom meetings, for example. Now, both men and women occupy the same little square on the computer screen. It’s reducing everyone to the same size—literally.

Oh, I know what you’re going to say: Men are probably hogging the air time with their booming voices on videoconferences. Interestingly, though, that’s not what I’m hearing.

“People are generally more cautious with etiquette, not to speak over others and to gauge the cadence of the group conversation,” says Katherine “Kassie” Helm, an intellectual property partner at Dechert. Zoom etiquette, she adds, has now attained the status of a must-have skill set.

While men might be holding their male privilege in check on Zoom at this particular moment, does anyone believe that male bonding and cronyism are truly dead? Don’t be naive.

“I assume the exclusionary in-person bonding is being replaced with an electronic camaraderie we may not be part of,” says Jane Shay Wald, partner emeritus at Irell & Manella, who chairs the firm’s trademark practice. She suspects that men are “selectively emailing each other, and not cc’ing the group.”

Indeed, a male lawyer at an Am Law 100 firm confirms Wald’s fear: “If two guys are doing buddy things like golf or fishing in normal times, they most likely are doing virtual things like texting each other inside jokes or playing video games or online poker or countless other virtual activities in the time of pandemic.”

But Wald says women should play the same game, too. “We don’t need a tee time or skybox tickets to privately follow up a Zoom conversation with a colleague or client,” says Wald, adding that people also crave one-on-one interaction right now. Wald also cautions, “Women shouldn’t get lulled into the illusion that the changes brought on by COVID-19 will stay.”

Indeed, boys will likely still be boys. Yet, some women predict that the Zoom will make it difficult to return to the old days.

“People are not just another face on the grid, because we see the real-life environment in which people work—children run by, dogs bark, people make jokes to ease the tension that arises with these distractions,” says Helm, who has three kids. “Home lives intersect with work lives for everyone, which means we are humanizing each other as we triage the responsibilities of coronavirus life.”

After all our effort to promote gender equality—mentor and sponsorship programs, bias training, Lean-In seminars—have Zoom meetings during in the coronavirus era become the great leveler? No one in their wildest moment would have written that script.

But, hey, whatever works.

Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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