June 24, 2017

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The Woman Problem – The Gender Debate at Podcamp Boston 4

The Woman Problem – The Gender Debate at Podcamp Boston 4

In the weeks since The Speakers’ Group posted their picks for the top ten speakers of note in the social media space–a list that was overwhelmingly white and entirely male–a powerful meme has swept the blogosphere. The topic is hardly a new concept, women have always largely absent from the dais at many of the major social media conferences. But it seems we have reached a tipping point; nearly a month later, the debate rages on. Responses from Geoff Livingston, Allyson Kapin, and Jill Foster (among many others) each examined the question at the  crux of the debate–are conference organizers merely sexist, or are women not doing enough to promote themselves? The question speaks to an underlying tension that has been percolating in the PR, marketing, and social media space for years.

Discussion of gender issues is undeniably fraught with peril. As a discussion topic it can grow rather heated, as it is inextricably tied to personal perspectives, experiences, and pre-existing beliefs. The inability to define the challenges women in this field face in black and white terms throws the debate directly into a murky area, where personal prejudices rule, tempers flare, and consensus seems nearly impossible. Even (especially, you might argue) among the women involved themselves.

The attendees of the session on the lawn at Podcamp Boston 4 can testify to this last statement. For over an hour, a group of women (along with a few thoughtful men) attempted to answer the questions posed above, and attempted to offer their solutions. The results were mixed, and few agreements were reached but one: There should be more women on the dais. It is the “how” that seems to trip us up.

Perhaps the inability to come up with an agreeable solution to the “how” is related to the lack of consensus on the “why.” Are conference organizers sexist when making speaker decisions? Are women not doing enough to promote themselves and aggressively seek these  opportunities? Are there societal and cultural differences in place that might be at the root of the latter? We get mired in our disagreements on the answers to these questions, which serves no purpose but to distract us from our ultimate goal.

In my experience with feminism, it is this distraction that is the killer. Getting caught in the minutiae-trap is the easiest way to ensure no solution will ever be found. Arguing about whether sexism and discrimination exist, or about biological, societal and cultural differences between the sexes (of which there are many) and how they contribute to the problem…does nothing to solve the problem.

When I say this has been an issue for years, I am not speaking in hyperbole. In researching this article I stumbled on this post from 2006,  practically the stone ages in the social media world, but germane to this discussion. The author was addressing sexism in the tech industry, and encountered the same issue that loomed over the gender discussion at Podcamp Boston:

[F]requently, if you try to point out sexism, you are told that it doesn’t exist, that you are imagining things, that you are trying to create trouble and piss people off, and that there is no subject position in the industry because it is based on merit (skills, whatever criteria you use). I am not interested in this discussion. Let’s accept that sexism does exist in the tech industry, like it exists everywhere else, and move on to how to change that.

Agree with her point of view or not, we should all agree that debates about sexism will not move the needle on the issue at hand. So what will? Focusing on where we agree. We agree that there is zero shortage of smart, accomplished, successful and engaging women in the social media  space. We agree that we all want to hear from them. We agree that diversity of both gender and ideas at industry conferences and panel discussions is important. Most importantly, we agree we need to support each other to speak up more often, and to promote ourselves a bit more.

But what if that’s not enough? While it would be simple to place the onus entirely on women to solve this problem, conference organizers must also get in the game. I asked Geoff Livingston, who organizes Blog Potomac, a DC-area social media conference, what conference organizers  can do to stem the tide. “I think the system is gamed to reward chest beating, which is a predominantly male trait,” he said. “Rarely do we hear about conference organizers proactively seeking women speakers, it’s always who can submit the best app. Nor do we hear them try to change the system so women will be more likely to submit apps.”

Once we move past the “why” and onto the “how,” we must then address the “who.” Certainly, powerful female voices in social media need to step up. That is already happening, if all the responses to this meme are any indication. But the conference organizers must also do their part: Invite more women to speak. Can’t think of any? Let me Google that for you. Do a better job publicizing your events and calling for session submissions. Be an active participant not only in the discussion, but in the solution.

Chris Penn, one of the founders of Podcamp, argues that all women need to do to get more attention is to “be awesome.” I think we already are pretty awesome, and it’s clearly not enough. Let’s change it.

Sarah Wurrey is a social media strategist for a Washington, DC public affairs firm. She is vice president of Social Media Club DC, an occasional contributor at Blogstring.com, and is the former Managing Editor of Media Bullseye. She can be found at her personal blog, and at http://twitter.com/sarahwurrey.

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5 Comments

  1. Tamsen (@tamadear)

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for moving the discussion to “what now”? Whether the barriers of sexism exist or not, the fact that women think it does is enough–perception is reality. So let’s move on to solving the real issue: how do we get more representation of the female perspective out there?

    Like any good woman, I say we need to take a multi-pronged approach:

    1. Encourage “blind” submission and review of presenters at conferences. This however, may still skew the needle towards men, as there are (as I understand it) simply more men in this business.
    2. After blind approval, go back and review the presenters to look for obvious gaps in representation, and then go find it. This can be on the part of the organizers, or depending on the conference, can be turned back over to the attendees (we need more women speakers! whom would you recommend?).
    3. Related to #2, encourage more of the badass women to get out there. Suggest conferences to them, recommend that organizers contact them. Promote them yourself. Make it so they cannot be ignored.
    4. If you are a badass woman, get to work. Figure out who holds the power, meet them, get your work in front of them, impress them. Make it so YOU cannot be ignored.
    5. If you’re not sure you’re (yet) a badass woman, but think you’ve got some good ideas and do good work, talk to some badass women (or men) and get some advice. What can I do to be better? What do you think I can offer that isn’t out there yet? How can I be badass?

    And finally,
    6. Look beyond gender at what makes the successful people successful. And figure out how to do it, too.

  2. Sarah

    Tamsen – Brilliant contribution, thank you. I definitely agree that the focus (including on my own personal blog, so I am not innocent of this) has been a bit too much on the arguments about the “why” question. By moving on and dealing with the issue, we can try to make it less of an issue moving forward.

  3. Jen Zingsheim

    Greg, that link gives me a 404 error…would love to at least take a look!

    Hopefully, it’s more than we talk a lot, therefore communications is a natural… 😉

  4. Chip Griffin

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of blanket categorizations in any direction. In other words, let’s be candid and discuss the merits of specific presentations. Should there be more women presenters at social media conferences? Perhaps — but not because they are women.

    I think the way to approach this issue is to say specifically who should have been speaking at a certain conference and what they should have addressed. Ultimately, the best speakers should discuss the most relevant topics — regardless of gender, race, religion, geography, etc.

    The way that we should eliminate gender as a criteria at conferences is to eliminate gender as a criteria at conferences — not use it explicitly for the sake of change.

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