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.