Women on the Web: Girl Power

Article ImageWhen the Pew Internet & American Life Project first measured gender differences in online social networking in 2005, only 9% of men and 6% of women who went online used social networking websites. Since then, millions more Americans have signed up on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. There has been another change in this statistical picture as well: For a few years now, women have been more likely than men to be online social networkers. According to the most recent Pew survey, from May of this year, 69% of women who are online use social networking sites, compared to 60% of men. Women also are more active on these sites; for example, 18% of women Facebook users update their statuses at least daily, compared to 11% of men.

Vickie L. Milazzo, author of the new book Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman, says women have an innate talent for social networking and that it can be a great advantage to female entrepreneurs online. "Women really are completely wired for collaboration and relationship building," says Milazzo, a registered nurse who started consulting for lawyers on medical issues 29 years ago and has since grown a $16-million business training other nurses to do the same.

Milazzo points to a recent study by professors at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT that showed that the collective intelligence of a group rises with the number of women in it. The gender mix mattered even more than the IQs of the individual group members. One of the study's authors told Harvard Business Review that the key ingredient was not gender per se but "social sensitivity," which women tend to have more of than men.

Intuition and collaboration are a couple of the feminine strengths that women can benefit from in their personal and professional lives, Milazzo says. Online social networking makes professional collaboration easier than ever before, she says. Women are "comfortable with not being the expert in every situation," and with online networks, "we can basically tap into experts and mentors so easily today."

She cautions, however, that women have to use their online networking time in a focused way to benefit professionally from it-growing a virtual farm on Facebook doesn't count. She says that while the rise of social media may help speed the arrival of the day when women and men are equal in the workplace, it will take a while to overcome all the societal, institutional, and individual mindsets that often make it difficult for women to advance their careers or earn the same pay as men for the same work. "There definitely are structural obstacles for women, and when I'm working with women and mentoring women I try not to sugarcoat that," Milazzo says.

Tara Hunt is a woman with a long resume of online entrepreneurship. She wrote the 2009 book The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business, in which she discussed the idea of "social capital" and its importance to business in the Web 2.0 era. ("Whuffie" is the currency based on individual reputation that had replaced money in the society depicted in Cory Doctorow's 2003 science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.) Hunt is now CEO and co-founder of Buyosphere, a website that allows users to bookmark products they have bought and products they want to buy.

She says that while women are a lot more social than men in some ways, as evidenced by their dominance of online social networks, that doesn't necessarily mean women are naturally social in all the ways that will help them as entrepreneurs. Women tend to have more "bonded" friends, with whom they have close, loyal relationships, while men tend to have more "bridged" friends, a larger network of people with whom they have lighter relationships, Hunt says. It's the latter kind of relationship that matters more in online business building, she says, because exploiting the reach of social networking sites requires going beyond one's comfort zone to broadcast to a large number of contacts.

"What it means to take advantage of these tools doesn't necessarily mean being more sociable," she explains. "At the end of the day, it's the amplification tools that really help us build our businesses."

Even if women do push themselves to establish more bridge relationships, though, they still have some other gaps to bridge. "I am still pitching to men when I'm raising money for my company, and I'm still coming up against philosophy barriers in a lot of ways," Hunt says. "I talk about the user experience, and the customer story, and how we can change the world and lives and stuff, and the feedback that I'm getting is very much, ‘Yeah, but where are the statistics?'" The growth-for-the-sake-of-growth approach to economics is a masculine one, while a more feminine approach sees sustainability as a necessary value along with growth, Hunt says.

Community-oriented, "soft" values may be starting to gain a foothold in the marketplace-Hunt says that Twitter, which has existed for 5 years and is only now focusing more on monetization, could be seen as an example of a "feminine" service.  And marketing to female customers has also shown signs of softening, with interactive conversations-often using online social media-more often replacing the pushy hard sell, she says.

Milazzo's business is one example of that approach to online social networks. "The way we use social media is to try to build a relationship with our customers, but we try to avoid using it to sell products," she says.

Hunt says a lot has to change before the business world corrects its long-established skew toward a masculine way of doing things, sees women's natural strengths as advantageous, and achieves a balance between masculine and feminine perspectives. But social media, used in the right way, can help. As she puts it, "I think that social media is good for amplifying those attitudes and uniting us together to effect change, rather than creating just a promotional tool."

Image courtesy of Soybeantown from Flickr Creative Commons.