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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Assertive Women and Blogs: More of Both, Please!

If you're a regular blog reader, look at your subscription list. Whom do you read every week? And how many of those blogs are written by women?

I just checked my Google Reader: male authors outnumber females roughly 2 to 1.

The question of why women don't appear to participate in the blogosphere as much as men arose when Dr. Schaff and I appeared on South Dakota Public Radio a couple years ago. It continues to occur to me as I look at what I read in the South Dakota blogosphere, what's available to read, and what I see in my comment box: generally more guys than gals.

I've hypothesized that women just aren't as interested in what often feels like the verbal equivalent of marking trees (while mocking dead-tree journalism... mix that metaphor!).

But danah boyd, one my favorite smart bloggers (Joe Bartmann likes her, too!), suggests a sexual double standard may push women out of the often assertive push and shove of blog discourse:

Amidst the questions of women's assertiveness, we must also call into questions our interpretations of the messages they put forward. Cuz many women are immediately labeled "bitch" the moment they speak with the kind of assertiveness that would be considered average for men. And that double standard also sucks. If I'm honest with myself, I've definitely gone out of my way to look young and cute and fuzzy and lovable in order to avoid that label. And to smile even when I don't feel like smiling. Because, in many environments, if I look as serious as I feel, my message does not get across. Of course, this can also be a costly signal because plenty of other folks have dismissed me for being young. I've found that it's a sin to be young in academia while it's a sin to be a serious woman in the tech industry. Needless to say, my identity development is mighty confused [danah boyd, "whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success," apophenia, 2010.01.19].

boyd notes that she has always been assertive with her opinions, and has "never deflated them with "I may be wrong but I think...'" (the same German-Norwegian-Lutheran self-deprecation I tell my speech students to avoid). Everyone should aspire to boyd's confidence, but we need to make room for that confidence in civil discourse by not branding women as arrogant just for speaking the same way men do.

Read boyd, read the Clay Shirky article that got her thinking, then tell me—unapologetically—what you think.


  1. Almost all of the blogs I read are authored by women, but I suspect that is because I read dog training and sports blogs almost exclusively, a field that is dominated by women.

  2. Hi, Crystal! You raise a point I've heard from others: we gravitate toward the familiar, toward the stuff we like... and we may end up with a hypersegregated Web. I know locally there's a circle of "mom" blogs, rather like scrapbooking online. There are also some tech blogs (mostly guys?), ag blogs (more than a few lady ranchers and farmers)... all existing in seeming isolation from each other and from this strange predominately male political blogosphere that I inhabit.

    I'm curious, Crystal: are those blogs you read inclined to any controversy or adversarial discussion? I guess I'm wondering, in your case, have the women you connect with gravitated toward fields where there isn't conflict, or have they gravitated toward a field dominated by women where they can more freely express themselves assertively without facing as much of the double standard boyd discusses?

  3. I think that Shirky is right in that, overall, women often aren't particularly aggressive in voicing their opinions or "getting ahead." And Boyd is correct in saying that those who do are often characterized as "bitches" when they speak authoritatively.

    And so we go back to whether or not women should care if they're seen as "bitches" instead of authoritative. In my not-so-humble opinion, whether or not a woman cares about being labeled a bitch has a lot to do with how she was raised/trained by both the male and female role models in her life, and I would guess it also has to do with her age.

    Once a woman hits, say, her middle thirties, she may begin to care less (if she ever cared) about appearing cute, sweet, demure, and appeasing because she's past the age that, in our culture, the "cute and sweet" act helps her in any significant way to get what she wants or needs.

    While I tend to be quite shy with strangers or large groups of people (and that, too, is often mistaken for snobbery), I was taught from an early age, sometimes with fairly painful lessons, to speak out and stick up for myself. Like Boyd, I've never had a problem with public speaking, and when I address a political figure, the thing I'm telling myself as I'm walking into (almost always) his office is, "he works for me."

    But addressing your comment, I do find myself occasionally toning down my blog material--it's usually the more political/aggressive posts that remain in drafts and never get out--not because I'm afraid to publish, but because I hold myself to a fairly strict standard when it comes to citing sources and backing up points (I do teach comp, after all), and I don't always have time to focus on and finish those posts before the "freshness" date on the material expires.

    BUT, I'll admit that it's also because sometimes I just don't have the psychic energy to deal with nasty or goading comments and/or backlash--the whole "should I care" thing all over again.

    Whew! Thanks for the space.

  4. I send my thanks to an anonymous commenter, who notes that we all have only so much time to read, and we all make choices that fit our interests. I agree... and I certainly don't blame Crystal or anyone else for reading only certain blogs, any more than I would criticize other readers for reading only South Dakota newspapers, or sci-fi novels, or how-to books on woodworking. Read what you love, read what you find useful and beautiful.

    Rebecca, I notice my sweet and demure wife is getting a little more assertive with time, too. Whether that's the natural process you mention or just hanging around with me, I'm not sure. ;-)

    And you're perfectly reasonable to steward your psychic energy. Sometimes assertiveness online only engenders a whole bunch of guff rather than making the kind of difference that assertiveness at a public meeting or a conference with a legislator might. Choosing not to be assertive is not the same as an unhealthy lack of assertiveness.

  5. Sort of interesting that the Google ad to the left when I read this post on assertive women had a headline something like "Find Hot Costa Rican Women".

    If I am reading a political blog, mostly I don't want to be able to tell if the writer is male or female, straight or gay, etc. unless it is relevant to a particular issue.

    Denise Ross seems to be able to do that although it appears there are no posts at the hoghouse blog for several months even as she keeps her newspaper column going.

  6. I definitely think there's a double standard in how more 'aggressive' women bloggers are treated by the boys club that seems to grow up in different blogging communities (i.e. often being characterized as bitches).

    I would go into it further, but that leads me to another reason why I know our blog isn't as active and that's time. I have no idea how a lot of these bloggers have time to write so many posts per day, but I don't see any way I could pull it off. For one thing, the constant throughout the work day stream seems to indicate that they must not have traditional 9-to-5 jobs which generally frown on their employees blogging all day. And after work you've got to deal with household responsibilities, family, volunteer work, and hopefully some sleep and exercise. I'm not sure how that could be gendered, but it's something that always amazes me.


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