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Something to think about... / blog
The Gender Trap with Media on Social Channels

Written by on October 24, 2017

Longtime readers will know that I often test my social channels to see how relevant they are to me.

For instance, at the start of 2017, I did a gender test for who I was following on Twitter, where I found that I was following far more men than women. This was not a conscious decision, it just happened that way because, in the media, the culture is kind of male-dominated.

In January I was following 55% men, 21% women, and 25% companies.

This is not acceptable to me, so I set out to change this, and with the help of a lot of brilliant people, we put together a list of amazing women that are worth following, and today my gender split on Twitter looks like this:

Yes, I'm now following more women than men, and the result is absolutely wonderful. This diverse input really helps me to see things in a better way, and I encourage everyone to do the same thing.

Go through your own Twitter follows, count the number of men and the number of women, see what the gender split is for you, and fix it.

More problems with LinkedIn

Now, last weekend I took a renewed interest in LinkedIn, but it has an even bigger problem than Twitter. Because of a wonderful post by my friend Avinash Kaushik, I suddenly got quite a number of new followers, and I started wondering what gender split I had on that channel.

LinkedIn to me has always been a bit of problem for three reasons.

Two-way friending

First of all, LinkedIn's two-way friending system means that most of the people that LinkedIn claims that I follow, aren't actually people that I know. Instead, it's people who might have come across one of my articles, and who then decided to connect with me.

I love connecting with my readers, but I don't love having my personal news feed filled up with posts about a million things that I have no interest in.

The way I use social media is that everyone I follow must provide me with something relevant. You can see this on Twitter, for instance. Here I personally follow only 444 people, all specifically picked because they give me information that I need.

On LinkedIn, however, what I found was that, since most of the people I followed were people I didn't know, my news feed was filled with posts that had no interest for me. This is the main reason why I rarely (if ever) use LinkedIn.

Too much noise

Another problem is that LinkedIn has made the same mistake as every other social channel by adding a ton of posts to my newsfeed about things that other people did, but didn't share.

These are posts where you will see this:

  • [person] liked this
  • [person] commented on this
  • [person] is now connected with

All of these are posts where someone you know had an interaction with someone else (that you don't know). But they are not sharing that interaction, they are just having that interaction.

The result of this is a massive number of posts in your news feed that have almost no value to you. It's just noise.

Job focused

The third problem is LinkedIn's history of being a social channel for job seekers.

I have been fortunate enough to never have needed to look for a job, and, as such, LinkedIn's job and networking focus has never had any use for me.

And these three problems combined meant that LinkedIn was never appealing or useful to me.

But now that Twitter's future is looking a bit sketchy (I don't think it will actually fail, but you never know), I'm starting to think about LinkedIn again. Maybe I should take it more seriously?

To do this, however, I need to find a way to tame LinkedIn, and to somehow get rid of all this noise. So, I looked at all the people LinkedIn claimed that I was following, and I was quite shocked by the result, especially when it came to gender.

Mind the (gender) gap!

If we just look at it as a whole, this was the result:

That's bad. It's much worse than the problem I had on Twitter. I was shocked by just how many men LinkedIn had connected me with.

But it actually gets worse than this, because I then decided to split up my list of people I was following into three categories:

  • People I have picked specifically
  • People from my old fashion industry days
  • People from my media analyst days

Let me quickly explain these:

I spent the first 14 years of my adult life working in the fashion industry. I started with fashion design (I went to fashion design school), but then moved into marketing, digital media, and later publishing.

Then 8 years ago I quit my job in the fashion world to work as a media analyst (I started working with publishing back in 2004)

As a result of this, my LinkedIn list has these two groups. One group are all the people I used to work with in my fashion days, and the other (and larger) group are for what I do today.

So, when I split up my list of people LinkedIn says I follow, I get this:

The first graph indicates the people that I specifically chose to follow, and here you see that, just as on Twitter, I ended up with more men than women, which, again, wasn't a conscious decision.

So clearly I need to do the same over at LinkedIn as I did on Twitter.

The second graph indicates all the people from my old fashion days, and here you see that the majority are women because this is what the fashion world is like.

But then look at the last graph. These are all the people LinkedIn has made me follow after I became a media analyst, and that list is almost entirely dominated by men.

I'm absolutely shocked how male-dominated this list is, and it's really a problem. It has an impact on my news feed, where I will mostly see posts by men, and therefore only see male-dominated topics and concerns.

But it also has an impact on what LinkedIn highlights or suggests that I see. For instance, on LinkedIn they often encourage you to 'improve your feed' by showing you a list of recommended topics and people for you to look at.

And when I look at that list, I get this result:

These are the people LinkedIn suggests that I follow. They are very heavily emphasizing companies or topics, but outside of that you will notice that most of them are men and only a small part of that is women.

So what we have here is a systemic problem, and it's specific to a number of industries, like the media industry.

It's clear that this is a problem, but it's not something that will solve itself. The social channels all optimize for the biggest effect, and thus seem to have a tendency to make this problem worse.

In the media, there is already a huge problem with gender inequality and representation, but from what I can tell, that problem is then exaggerated on social channels. And unless we actually do something to specifically fix that, it's going to keep being a problem forever.

The problem isn't just the gender split in terms of who we follow, but also what happens when one gender dominates.

Take Twitter, for instance. As I mentioned earlier I'm now following 51% women and 49% men on Twitter, but that hasn't really solved the gender imbalance.

The problem is that, due to things like harassment, women tweet much less than men.

Let me give you an example:

I just looked over the past 300 tweets in my Twitter stream and counted how many there were from men and how many there were from women. And this is the result:

Even though I follow slightly more women than men, men still dominate my stream.

This is crazy, and more to the point, I didn't have this problem back when I was working in the fashion industry. This is a problem specific to the media industry (and others too, like tech).

Two problems = two things to fix

So, we have two problems.

The first problem is that our social channels are heavily distorted towards a male-dominated society, which isn't going to fix itself. It's something that we need to take responsibility for and do something about.

For social channels, this means tweaking the algorithms to give women an equal voice, and to make sure the 'suggested people' lists are equally weighted.

Remember, the reason why men dominate isn't because they are better or more talented. It's because men started out dominating, so we got an advantage that put us at the top, which is then made worse by social algorithms giving more voice to people who already have a voice.

So, social channels need to specifically design for equality.

For you and me, it means taking steps to fix this for ourselves. I did this with Twitter earlier this year, and I'm now going to do the same over at LinkedIn. And I encourage you to do it too.

Again, look at the list of who you follow, look at the gender split... and fix it. And also, while you are at it, clean up your list in general, because LinkedIn has likely connected you with a ton of people that you don't know.

Note: Unfollowing people on LinkedIn doesn't mean that you aren't connected to them. It simply means that their posts will no longer show up in your personal news feed.

The second problem is with how women are being suppressed online. For the past 20 years, we have focused on the wrong interpretation of 'free speech'. Social channels such as Twitter have allowed people to harass women in the name of free speech, giving voice to extremists at the expense of women.

This is not acceptable. Free speech shouldn't mean that extremists, bigots, and idiots get to be the only ones with a voice. It means everyone should have the freedom and comfort to speak.

If someone starts to harass, or in any other way bully women to stop them speaking, that's not free speech. That's the opposite of free speech, and we need to stop it.

Social sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook need to step up and take responsibility for this. Today they are defining free speech the wrong way, and the damaging effect is clearly seen.

But this problem isn't limited to social sites, because we see exactly the same thing in the media industry. What journalists cover is also heavily distorted in favor of a male-dominated world. Journalists will often give voice to extremist men rather than inspiring women.

And as I illustrated in "When Journalism is Causing Unintentional Harm", even when we think we are solving the problem, we are actually making it worse.

So, change your editorial approach.

Help create a world that women feel inspired to interact with, because only then can we have true equality.

And remember, none of this is going to happen by itself. This is something we have to choose to fix. So choose it!

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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