Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Women of Silicon Valley

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Since last fall, I’ve been working with Cognizant on their Women Empowered initiative, which has created a community for female executives interested in increasing workforce diversity — in particular, attracting, developing and promoting female employees. It has been gratifying work, yoking together research that I’ve done over the years about women and social media with Cognizant’s effort to increase the number of women in leadership positions in IT.

Although women are the key drivers of the social media revolution (you can check out my TED talk about this), several studies have indicated that women are reluctant to use their social networks – online or offline – to promote themselves professionally.

Long before digital social networks became ubiquitous, research demonstrated that networking was essential to the job hunt:  according to the Anita Borg Institute, jobs are more likely to be found through social networks, and women are less likely to get jobs through informal social networks or to receive unsolicited job offers, even after controlling for experience. Positions in fields that are male dominated – like so many tech fields – are more likely to see male referrals.

In the past, social networks usually negatively affected diversity, but that needn’t be the case anymore as more and more companies shift recruitment resources to social media networks, where, lo and behold, we find a population dominated by women who not only outnumber men but are more actively engaged in social sharing.

I recently spoke about these issues at a Cognizant Community for Women event in the heart of Silicon Valley, where, sadly, women make up four percent of senior management positions in technical and R&D departments. The room was filled with about 70 female professionals in IT. During a workshop with them, I had the opportunity to survey them, in real time, about how they use social media and, more specifically, what role it plays in their professional lives.

When asked whether they were reluctant about using social networks to promote themselves professionally, half said yes and half said no. But only 22% said that online social networking had ever helped them get a job or a promotion, even though a whopping 83% said they had helped others in their online networks do the same.

The room was aghast at the discovery, and as we talked about it as a group, it become more and more clear that some of the messages emerging from Sheryl Sandberg’s highly publicized Lean In campaign applied in spades to this distinguished group. Sandberg’s core argument – made quite forcefully at TEDWomen in 2010 – is that women often get in their own way, downplaying their professional strengths in order to conform to social norms about women being nurturing instead of aggressive.

It’s incredibly difficult to change culture, but that is the task before us. Sandberg suggests that a sea change may be in the works and there’s some evidence she might be right: according to TIME, 120 companies have already signed up as partners in the Lean In campaign.

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