gender and social media

I read a blog post yesterday that staggered me. It was about a woman who could only find success as a blogger and freelance writer after she posed as a man (under the name of James Chartrand).

The gist of the tale was that she was a talented, hard-working individual who could not make enough to feed her family until she lied about her gender. Once she became “James,” her life changed. She’s been living a double life for years and has attracted a loyal audience to her photo-free, phone-free persona. It made me sad and angry … and it stirred a lot of other people too.  It was tweeted more than 2,000 times and received more than 400 comments.

One of those commenters was Jenn Whinnem, who suggested that I blog about the underlying issues.  I thought it would be a richer experience if I could capture a woman’s perspective too, so I embarked on an experiment – a virtual chat that became today’s blog post on gender inequality on the social web …

Mark: My initial reaction was “stunned” that this kind of blatant inequality still exists, especially on the social web, which is supposed to be so democratic. I guess that myth has been exploded.

Jenn: I was saddened, but not surprised.  Since establishing a professional presence on the social web, I haven’t experienced discrimination (to my knowledge).  I have, of course, experienced sexism in the workplace – everywhere really – so I see no reason why it would be any different on the Internet. I realize James Chartrand was pushed into outing herself, but I’m really grateful for the attention her decision has brought to this topic.  When I’ve been offered a salary, I’ve had no idea if a man would have been offered more.  But “James” knows, and she shared it with us.

Mark: You said you didn’t know if you had experienced discrimination on the web and this made me think about my own behaviors. I looked at who I work with, who I am connecting with on the web, who has been guest-blogging … just any data points I could find. I guess I’m trying to judge my behavior by the numbers. Does that seem silly?

Jenn: I don’t think it’s silly at all.  Reviewing one’s own behavior is necessary for change. As for examining the ‘numbers’ aspect of it — well, that’s a pretty hot topic in social media – proving that the time spent using social media leads to dollars for your business.  I know it’s something you’ve written about, Mark.  It’s important to know which numbers you’re paying attention to and knowing what they mean.  You can look at the number of men vs. women you’re following on Twitter, but what is that going to tell you?

Mark: At the end of the day, equality has to come through self-awareness. I can try to look at numbers and still fool myself about how I treat people. I had one boss who treated women terribly … to the point that I was compelled to address it. He said, “Look at all the women who report to me. How can you say I have a problem with women?” In his case, the numbers supported “equal treatment” but his actions were incongruent. So Jenn, what do you do to see yourself more accurately?  To make sure you’re congruent?

Jenn: That anecdote is a perfect example of how someone can fool themselves into thinking they’re ‘okay’ and why there’s a real need to keep fighting for equality. For me, that fight begins with my own behavior.  I’m the first to admit that I’m often guilty of ‘incongruent’ behavior, and like you, Mark, I find that awareness is the first step in correcting that.  I also had an excellent boss (hi Alice!) early in my career who lived the mantra “nurture other women, don’t compete with them.”  And, when I think about it, this complements nicely the social media mantra “promote others, not yourself.”

Mark: Do you think that is a social media mantra or a feminine mantra?  I ask this because the comment section in my previous blog post on this topic contained speculation that some inequality stems from the fact that men are perceived to be better self-promoters than women. I think the male social media mantra might be “help others, promote yourself.”

Jenn: I’ve read the “promote others” mantra in several blog posts, but didn’t notice if the authors were men or women.  But I don’t know that this is a feminine mantra. My experience has been, at least in the work place, that women are more likely to tear each other down to eliminate the competition, rather than help each other out.  This is why Alice’s advice was so powerful to me.

I find the conversation about men or women being better at self-promotion more difficult.  If we look at gender roles in this culture broadly, I would say that self-promotion goes against socially desirable behavior for women.

Mark: That’s an interesting observation. Perhaps this cultural expectation for socially-desirable “female” behavior is just exacerbated on the narcissistic social web. Instead of being the great equalizer everybody hopes for, it could actually highlight and reinforce aspects of our culture that keep gender inequality in place?

Jenn: If I can back up a minute, where did the idea of social media as an equalizer come from?  We encourage the idea of “being human” on the social web … and any space where people are invited to be human means they’re going to do just that.  On the positive side, I think this kind of highlighting is a good thing.  When attention is drawn to inequalities, it starts to change.  Something of a theme in our conversation.

Mark: I say “equalizer” because presumably having access to free, global, immediate communication should provide genders, races, religions, rich and poor with precisely the same opportunity to communicate and connect. But I guess you’re right. If underlying inequalities persist, it’s wrong to think that will change by simply having a new way to broadcast it. It drives home for me again how silly it is when people say the social web “changes everything.” Obviously it doesn’t.

Jenn, our dialogue has brought up some vital discussion points. Let’s turn it over to the {grow} community to add to the discussion …

Jenn Whinnem is a Communication Specialist focusing on developing social media strategy for Golden Compass. You can connect with her via @JennWhinnem on Twitter.

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