For those of you who may be new here, I’ve been “embedded” in social media now for almost three years. Not as long as some, longer than others. I never saw myself as doing anything radical, or against the tide. I always saw new media as a way to express and publicize my ideas, as a virtual resume for my opinions and beliefs.
Yesterday, for the first time, I attended BlogHer. Blogher DC was part of BlogHer’s Reach Out tour- smaller, local versions of their bigger annual blogging and business conferences. I estimate there was probably about 250 women in attendance, and about 8 men, maximum. (As an aside, this is probably about the same proportion of men to women at most of the Knitting/Fiber festivals like Maryland Sheep & Wool or Stitches East, based on my past experience- not exactly testosterone friendly events.) I understand the GirlPower aspects of the conference, the striving to identify our voices and perhaps even the perception of not being taken as seriously as men are in the tech world. But I wonder if the name of the conference “warns off” the guys to an extent where they don’t feel welcome, and therefore, half the conversation we want to have is missing. This, and the all-Women speaker policy doesn’t exactly invite men to participate- it’s pretty much excluding them from the conference and saying “you don’t belong here”.
This is not necessarily a bad thing- I think there are plenty of ways to define and divide a community. I think having women-oriented events are empowering. It’s a great opportunity for sponsors to reach a very specific market. It gives opportunity for many women to speak freely and have a chance to sit on high-powered panels. But then again, since I have run many Podcamps where anyone can speak, I haven’t found women prohibited from participating in any of these formats.
I wonder if the all-women format does make BlogHer more niche, than say, South by Southwest or other tech conferences.
A friend of mine attended the BlogHer Boston Reach Out this past weekend, and ended up having a conversation with someone who wondered why the social media guys in the Boston area didn’t attend the conference. I had this same conversation with DigitalSista on Twitter at BlogHer DC, and extended it during the cocktail party. She remarked to a few of the male attendees who went out to catch a few minutes of playoff baseball that it was “funny how you guys continue to bail when they are out numbered by strong women in the social media space.” I tweeted back that I didn’t think BlogHer did much to make them feel welcomed, and DigitalSista replied that she didn’t feel the guys in the social media space did much to make women feel welcomed.
This has been so counter to my whole experience in the space, I was shocked. In fact, from my very first New Media conference, Podcamp Boston, Chris Brogan and Chris Penn made me feel very much at home. I was overwhelmed by getting to meet people like CC Chapman, and CC simply gave me a big hug, made me feel like I had something to say. All of these guys are not only my personal friends now, but they are colleagues. Subsequently, I’ve had the pleasure to work with others like John Havens, Howard Greenstein, Eric Skiff, Dan Patterson, and others, and have never felt like I am somehow “the little mommy” or anything other than a total equal.
I have a ton of male friends in this space, where, traditionally, men have tended to dominate, and I have never once felt marginalized in any way, shape or form. The only time I ever feel that I am treated differently is when they make sure someone walks me to my car after a late night event, or offer to carry something heavy for me. That’s manners, not condescension. And when I had an incident where I was accused of being a bitch for enforcing rules at Podcamp NYC, each and every one of these colleagues weighed in positively, supportively, without asking, on my behalf. I could not have a better or more loyal group of friends, male or female, period.
So I was pretty taken aback that whether or not guys were attending BlogHer was even an issue. If they want to come, fantastic! But I didn’t expect it, for the exact same reasons I don’t want to join a fraternity, which raising two sons has given me some perspective on, frankly. If the purpose of the conference is to reach out to women and that demographic, it’s kind of silly to think that all the male bloggers and web types in the area would be dying to come on down.
The event knows this, and the sponsors do as well. This is an event where door prizes are things like MAC makeup bags and giveaways like fuzzy slippers. Meals are salad and soup, not burgers and fries. It’s a girl conference, playing to a girl crowd, and that’s fantastic.
But if you are creating a sorority, with the intent of supporting women in the blogosphere, why should anyone be surprised the guys don’t automatically come and join?
Michael Gray wrote a post this summer about whether BlogHer conferences were sexist by design. The New York Times wrote a big article about the BlogHer conference, that generated a lot of blowback in part because it appeared not in the news or tech section of the paper, but the Style section. You can read more about that controversy in this article on Salon.com, and there’s a great video by Rebecca Traister from Salon about the controversy here.
Leslie Stahl, who has started a social network for women called WowOWow, Women on the Web, said in her presentation that she never would have predicted back in the 1970’s that the US still wouldn’t have a female president by 2008. She would have said that was simply crazy. But politics is a field where you have to be smart and aggressive, and many women have a hard time walking the aggression/not being labelled a B&^%ch line. In fact, one of the things DigitalSista mentioned is how hard it was for many women to walk into a room of men and feel comfortable. Well, isn’t that exactly the reason why more women aren’t in politics?
I don’t think it’s fair to blame men for this entirely. I think women have to go to events and just assume they belong, speak intelligently, and get taken seriously because they are smart and serious people. That way, people see Smart and intelligent first, not all the sexism stuff. Even when working for such male bastions as the NFL, I’ve found leading with smarts is the quickest way to get respect and a seat at the table than anything else. If women have a self-esteem or feel like the other, there’s not a lot other people can do, men or women, to make that go away.
Yes, as more women enter new media and do well, as more role models exist, the more people feel that this is a place where they belong and can succeed. I agree the trailblazers make it easier for everyone else. But I think the most important thing women have to stop doing is assuming they have to ask for permission or await an engraved invitation. We have to be bold and take charge. Assume you belong. And go and prove you can make significant and positive contributions.
The biggest obstacle to the women’s movement is women sometimes. Falling back on being shy is a bad thing. If you want to have a voice, you need to use the one you have. We have to have the self-confidence to participate and run things as well, if not better than our male counterparts. We have to stop looking to men to act as our ambassadors, but look to them as colleagues and mentors. Men don’t marginalize us- we marginalize ourselves by assuming we’re not good enough.
This means doing some hard work and finding how you can best learn and contribute, rather than assuming it’s someone else’s responsibility to make you feel welcome. We can hope men decide to be as charming and welcoming as the best hostess on the planet, but that won’t make it happen any sooner. But by showing them how much we have to offer- that makes us not a curiosity, but a force to be reckoned with.
BlogHer is fantastic and a great opportunity for women to feel safe and venture out into public a bit more- but the true success will be when there’s not a need to segregate events based on gender- when gender becomes just a context or a point of view, and not a be-all and end-all. And I think that was the original point of the women’s movement. But since gender is a biological fact we can’t change, let’s own it, accept it, and make it just like having brown hair or blue eyes- part of our identity, but not the whole thing.