Gender and the virtual workplace during COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has brought dramatic changes to the lives of people the world over.  For many of us, living in a restricted environment has seen us adapt to a new way of working – working from home. And our work at home involves, to a large extent, a virtual workplace. Our contact with colleagues and clients is via email, teleconference or videoconference. Large parts of our day are spent in meetings via Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype or some other online platform.  Even our work social life is mediated through a computer screen – Zoom drinks at 5 p.m., anyone? 

The changes have been particularly profound for some professions, where the work that has ordinarily been done in a specific physical environment has necessarily been transformed in the virtual environment. Think of teachers, for example, no longer teaching students in a classroom. Or doctors engaging in “telemedicine”, not able to have a physical consultation with their patient.

I am a barrister. My pre-pandemic work day involved conferring with clients, witnesses or other barristers in my “chambers” (a fancy word for my office), racing off to court and racing back for more conferences.  My chambers is on a floor of barristers, in a building full of barristers. The building is conveniently located across the road from various court houses, in the court precinct in my home town. I have always considered proximity to the courts and to other barristers an essential part of my working life. 

The virtual world has changed all of that. I now work from home. My court appearances take place by videoconference, with judges and other barristers (and witnesses) appearing from different locations. All of my meetings – whether with clients, witnesses or other barristers – take place remotely. 

But this essay is not about the physical changes brought about by working from home. This essay is about how the virtual workplace has changed the physicality of my work in another way, a way that has interesting implications for women in the workplace. 

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