Is the Web Female?

by on July 7, 2009 at 2:25 am

Yesterday at Reboot Britain in London, there were back-to-back sessions and countless panels on technology, innovation, social media and the web.

It ranged from ending the digital divide, redefining the role of public service media, where next for the media and politics, consumer democracy or a politics of citizenship, to the future of policymaking, how video games open learning and creating a social, environmental and ethical revolution in business.

On the panel, “is the web female?” moderated by BT’s JP Rangaswami, four women talked about their opinions around a) what does the web ‘being female’ mean and b) should there be the “divide debate” at all?

JP Rangaswami

Australian Joanne Jacobs was amusing and got a laugh from the audience when she said, I’d like to think that I’m the token bloke on the panel.” She tends to do more ‘masculine’ things online, she tells us. Before she went deeper, I was wondering whether that meant playing war games or creating widget skins in black and gray. Not quite.

Bottom line, how we spend our time online is different depending how much feminine energy we house in our daily lives. Are we women working from home, raising two children and active in our kids PTA? Or, are we women engineers developing the latest UI and have a child, but our husband does the chores and looks after the kids most of the time?

Joanne and MT

Or, frankly other issues altogether, such as the ones that we didn’t have time to really explore at depth. It’s not just how comfortable we are throwing ourselves into the public eye, but how much we say once we do, how often and with what tone.

Says Joanne, “Culturization is the hardest thing for specific needs or outcomes. The web a great opportunity for women and men to deliver what they are looking for and get what they want online.”

MT Rainey of Horses Mouth brings up the feminine versus masculine issue that I spend a lot of time thinking about. She says, “it’s not so much is the web female, but the question is how can the web men help bring out the feminine side?”

The flip side is true too and we see it in places like Second Life or chat rooms where women take on a male persona or act things out anonymously because it ‘feels’ safer to do so.

The debate in the hallway was mixed but most didn’t feel that technology was geared towards men. They haven’t been to Silicon Valley I was thinking. 99% of my client CEOs and head honchos have been men as have the majority of their engineering team. There’s always a token woman or two among us but I never feel as if they’re the main decision drivers. Bear in mind that this is the majority of my experience but not all.

I’ve certainly worked with women CEOs and proactively pushed women heads of business development and engineering for speaking roles and media interviews on countless occasions.

Masculine energy drives a lot of the UI decisions in many of my past experiences, as well as the marketing ones. When a target audience is predominantly female, then they’ll often fork out the cash for the research to make sure they’re on track with patterns and preferences. And yes, they look to me for guidance.

It’s an interesting dance however since designers, like artists, love to create what they love and what works for them – and we all know that this isn’t necessarily what their audience wants or needs.

One of the things women do online is get things done. It’s all about efficiency. Meghan feels that if women were involved earlier on, there would be more group regulation around commentaries on social forums and that technology would be more practical and efficient. More practical and efficient? I couldn’t agree more.

There’s also the issue about how comfortable women feel about making abrasive and controversial statements and comments on the web. Joanne feels that Americans and Australians are fairly comfortable about making abrupt statements online, although Sarah thinks that while American women are active on the web, they’re still not that comfortable with aggressive behavior on line.

Sarah-Lacy and Meghan-Asha

It’s obviously a cultural thing. Joanne would love to see women participate in more games in the real world that are more outcome oriented. “If I was going to improve the web, it would be more game oriented for women entrepreneurs,” she says.

As for improving the web, MT says in the spirit of Reboot Britain, “we have a lot of users who don’t use a lot of rich-media sites. We should create sites where women can come to a place to help each other rather than having to rely on institutional resources only. We should take those two big slices of what we spend millions of pounds on in the public sector, and create things online where people can deliver the soft elements that will appeal to women.”

Meghan adds two things: “clarity and friendliness and making it easier to find things on the web.” That goes back to the old age search debate.

Things often come full circle.

One Response to “Is the Web Female?”

  1. Mark Littlewood

    Jul 7th, 2009

    A fascinating debate although if the audience felt that the web was not geared toward men, I wonder who they were and whether they expressed their true feelings. The sad reality in the uk is that most venture backed technology businesses (using this as a loose but imperfect proxy for scalable, impactful businesses), are run by male CEOs and founders. (I looked at this in 2007 and of approximately 1,500 businesses, the most senior executive was female in less than 60.

    This is a great shame as some of the most innovative ideas I have seen in recent times have come from women. Alicia Navarro’s Skimlinks business for example would probably not have been developed by a male founder as it came out of some really thoughtful insight and intuition into the way that women make purchasing decisions on the web and in real life.

    A more ‘female’ web would probably be a friendlier, more useful, richer, politer and more valuable experience for most users. Finding ways to help support and celebrate breakthroughs in achieving this would reward us all.

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