Thinking Out Loud: Is Social Media the new Pink Collar Ghetto of Tech?

If you live in Chicago and work in online … anything really, you know that there are about 5 – 10 events going on each week geared toward technology and social media. Tweet-ups, networking functions, parties, demos, you name it.

I went to one of these events earlier last week, a social media focused event, and noticed that most of the attendees (about 75%) were female. Honestly, that wasn’t a huge surprise to me considering that’s the make-up of a lot of social media events I go to these days. Later that same week i went to another, more “traditional” tech-focused event (i.e. mostly developers and the like) and noticed it was the reverse – about 3/4 male.

Noticing the gender disparity of both events got me thinking about social media – most specifically social media and general online marketing -and its role in the hierarchy of  the tech industry  as a whole. I wonder, as the social media world becomes more and more female-driven (after all, social media power  users tend to be female) will it become “demoted” in the tech industry, seen as a “soft” profession with lower comparative salaries and less room for professional advancement/leadership? Has that already happened?

Earlier this year, an article in Fast Company called out the “digital ceiling” (particularly the small number of  female panelists at tech conferences) and started up a firestorm of conversation on Twitter and a lot of blogs. There were a lot of suggestions on how women in tech can break the digital ceiling and get recognition in a male driven business culture, but a lot of the discussion still seems to focus on individual strategies for advancement as opposed to broader, institutional change.

I don’t know how to properly approach this or tackle this issue. When the Fast Company article on women at tech conferences was originally posted, I remember a (presumably male) commenter make a suggestion that women “start their own conferences” and invite “qualified” presenters (sorry I can’t find a source for that particular comment, but it was repeated by several others).

Back in the fall, I helped to put together a social media focused conference, with another woman who works in social media, and the event was sponsored by a professional organization for women. During that time, I had about three male potential attendees ask me if the event was “open to men.” I found this unsettling, the assumption that a women – run event would be seen as inherently exclusionary to men.

Either way, the idea that women should have to “start their own conferences” just puts the burden back on women to create “separate but equal”  networking spaces rather than building,  even demanding  a professional culture and mindset where women’s expertise is accepted in the tech industry.

This is certainly not to take away from valuable online spaces like BlogHer, She’s Geeky and Webgrrrls; they are valuable and powerful spaces to learn and organize – and conferences I look forward to attending.  But we should  be seen and heard in male dominated spaces as well. I fear that if social media starts to get too stratified by gender, it will be easier for the work that women do in social media to become marginalized in the tech world.

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