The Gendering of Social Media Skills

Can web technology be considered sex and gender neutral if the web design profession is dominated by males and prioritizes technical over social issues in web design?

Maxine Robertson, PhD, Technology Scholar
Historically, researchers have concluded that females self-report significantly lower levels of familiarity and use of web-based technologies than male users. This is not the case with social media. Female users of social media actually participate more and achieve higher domain knowledge than male users. This debunks the dominant deficit discourse around women, expertise, and technology.

When considering the design of technology and its learning, it is important to consider how people are socialized to think about their skills and tech use along gender role and gender stereotypes.

In the early era of Web technology and web design, that is during the first ten years of the 2000’s, females were reported as less intensive users of Internet technologies, they self-reported lower Internet skill levels along technical lines and exhibited higher levels of anxiety, incompetence, and discomfort in their online activities. This was with the exception of the social communication tool of email.

Females also perceived the Internet as less useful, than men.  Now all these aspects of women’s lower self-assessment regarding their web-use skills it was deemed would effect significantly the extent of their online behavior and the types of uses they had for the Internet.

The impact of this early body of work in the technology research sector is that is has led to the creation of a deficit culture for female web users, designers, and developers. This even extends to how we consider the suitability of women to be tech founders or leaders of digital start-ups. This is that digital design skills women are socialized to be or think they are less than that of their male peers. A key limitation of these early studies is that many are based on participants self-reporting their consumption or perceptions, not reports of actual use, skill or involvement in digital practices, and the studies were reported through the lens of technology researchers who we predominantly male.

Being aware of the lens through which we see the world is very important to be able to consider it from different perspectives, as well as our own.

Self-reporting technology use and skills is also highly susceptible to social cues and influences. Females are more responsive than males to social cues in the environment; females yield more to social pressures and look more to the opinions of others as opportunities to learn about their own ability.

The effect of this social influence on the behavioral intent to use technology is stronger for females than males. As such, in a group learning context, finding that females users are more responsive and participate more than males is consistent.

Male and females also seem to perceive their digital skills along gender stereotypes, with this distinction between hard and soft skills. Males self-report higher levels of familiarity with technical web terms than female students; females will participate more than males in the social media practices.

Females do perceive themselves to have technology-related skills, but that these skills are relationship and communication focused abilities that occur via computer-mediated communication. In contrast, males perceive themselves as having skills in more ‘technical’ aspects of technology.

The results of the study we conducted with Wiki’s is consistent with this, and emerging empirical research on male and female differences in social digital connectivity and social media use.

We found that despite female students self-reporting significantly lower levels of web familiarity of technical terms and skills than males, they still participated more socially than male students and achieved higher social performance score.

This raises the question of how we consider gender socialization of socially mediated practices and technology skill perceptions. It also raises about how the rise in socially mediated practices places more emphasis on communication and relationship skills for meaningful participation and the appeal of the social aspect for female users.

We need to move beyond the focus in digital design and training that is placed on the technical, to a deeper consideration of the mediated social practices to fully account for the gendering of digital/social media skills.

Read more: Page, K. L., and Reynolds, N. (2015). Learning from a Wiki Way of Learning. Studies in Higher Education. 40 (6). 988-1013.