Point of View


The Social Media Gender Gap

As social media, Web 2.0 and new tools of the unmediated Web become more common to communicators, many of us will try to learn more by attending a conference or workshop on the subject. And there, we are likely to come across a paradox.

A study by the online reputation management site Rapleaf indicated that while both men and women are using social media in huge numbers, women are doing so at a much higher rate. An article in the New York Times earlier this year noted that the primary creators of web content are teenage girls. And another study by Compass Partners LLC reported that 36.2 million women in the U.S. write and read blogs every week.

Yet at many of these conferences about social media, the people presenting are mostly men.

It’s evidently becoming a sore point for some people, as evidenced by a recent press release about the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo that made a point to state that it “proudly features leading women, with over 40 percent of the keynote lineup being female.” That’s all well and good, but a closer look at the lineup shows that overall only 16 percent of the conference presenters are female—two percent less than at last year’s Web 2.0 Expo.

Now I am never one to whine and moan about gender issues, and I don’t think there is some hidden agenda by “the man” to keep women out of the social media spotlight. However, a comment from one prominent woman in the social media field switched on a lightbulb in my head about what might be one cause of this disparity.

An avid user of the microblogging platform Twitter, I saw two “tweets” one day that triggered the connection. First, blogger and social media evangelist Chris Brogan sent out a promo for a social media webinar featuring interviews with leaders in the field. Only five of the 32 presenters were women. Then, presentations consultant and speaker Laura Fitton (a.k.a. Pistachio in social media circles) posited the question, “Men who travel for business: When you are at an event or on a trip, how often does some[one] ask you who is watching your kids?”

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe the reason for the disparity is as simple as the ability to travel for work (or the interest in traveling). I thought of a non-work example in which I’d seen firsthand that when a group of fathers go away for a weekend, not much changes in the home. But when that same group’s spouses go away for a weekend, many of the children wind up spending the time at Grandma’s house. I blogged about my thoughts at ThisMommyGig.com, and one of my own co-workers chimed in to confirm that when he travels to speak, no one ever asks him who is taking care of his children.

Brogan joined the conversation that unfolded because I had pointed to his webinar as an example of the lack of female representation. As he explained that at his past conferences 49 percent of the speakers had been female, he also validated my theory that travel could be the impediment. He said the reason this particular webinar was low on estrogen was that he had interviewed the presenters at a previous event. It was clear that more men than women had traveled to that conference.

We don’t see many women on a speaker lineup or being heralded as leaders in social media. But is the reason simply because so few of them have, or feel they have, the freedom to travel to conferences to make the connections that bring visibility and, in turn, lead to speaking opportunities? Does the fact that social media relies on new web-based technologies mean we haven’t yet gotten rid of the issues that women in technology have faced for years?

Tara Hunt, another prominent social media speaker who says she has relied heavily on her family to assist with childcare when she travels, had a great example in an article she wrote for O’Reilly Media. She noticed that when attending an internal Yahoo! Hack Day, at least two-thirds of the attenders were women. But, a couple of weeks later at an all-night hacker fest, hardly any women were in attendance. One can assume that the women from Yahoo! were home with their families that evening. Many of the Yahoo! men were probably home with their families, too. Anyone with children is likely too busy to attend many all-night fests, even if they so desired.

The point is, while no one is deliberately holding women back from a place of prominence in the social media field, we should be mindful that they get their due rewards and recognition. When planning your next conference, or bringing in a speaker to address your team, take time to make sure that women are represented. They’re out there and likely on some list such as North x East’s “Fifty Most Influential Female Bloggers” or Conversational Media Marketing’s list of “Savvy Women in Social Media.” Just Google it!