There's No Glass Ceiling On Twitter
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Searching for the Sheryl Sandbergs of Asia on Twitter. Give me a name and tell me why #top25womenAsia
I just had to send that tweet out. For the third time in a month, I had seen a list recommending 25 women to follow on Twitter. For the third time in a row I searched for signs of diversity and variation in the list. Alas, none were to be found. Most women on the list were well accomplished women from the western world. Surely, there was a list somewhere that highlighted the contributions of women from the southern hemisphere. After all Asia did account for about 40% of the total tweets, and women outnumbered men in both membership and usage there.
I directed my tweet at social media gurus or prominent women with a large following based in Asia. Majority re-tweeted the request, some came back with a few nominations, but none knew of a such a list, not folks in China, Japan, or India where the tweet had reached.
I did not realize the journey I was undertaking with this single tweet. A virtual journey, of creating a crowdsourced list that took me across the globe and led me to some important realizations about women and leadership and the role of social media in the same. And so before I share that list I want to share three key insights I gained from this search. Insights that are central to the women and leadership agenda the world over.
Power, visibility and voice
"You can’t count what you don’t see. We don’t invest in what is invisible to us." — Gayle T. Lemmon, TED talk
My main aim in creating the list was to provide greater visibility to women from a different part of the world. As I went looking for my list, I found one which listed the 100 Most Powerful Women (Forbes) from around the world. This was a stellar list, with women from many fields and including women from Asia. As I read the list I could not help but reflect on why I was limiting my search to women from the corporate world. After all, power is not just found on Wall Street and corporate corridors. Even though, that is the kind of power media often focuses on when it laments the lack of women on boards or as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. I had sub-consciously bought into that conceptualization of power.
I realized that there are many types of power, and consequently many types of leadership. It is not always about power ‘over’, but power ‘with’ and power ‘for’. Where were the women on twitter who were ruling their niche in a world that lay beyond the traditional notions of what power and powerful looks like ? After all, we may not all be Sheryl Sandbergs or Marissa Mayers but we are all powerful in our own way. There are women making a difference in many varied fields and they need to be highlighted. There are many stories out there that we have not heard. We owe it to ourselves to listen to, share and learn from those stories.
So I modified the tweet: “Who are #top25women ‘in’ Asia on twitter. Leaders of their niche, not just celebrities. Need name and reason”
And with that I felt I had changed my filters and expanded my world, in a single tweet.
The opportunity that is social media
As I talked to more people about this list, I often got asked, why I was focused on Twitter? What was the importance of social media when it comes to the discussion on women and leadership?
Here is how I see it. Women are first generation immigrants to the workplace and formal circles of power. And as is often the case with first generation immigrants, we have had to elbow and push our way for resources, space and acceptance. We are often measured against a higher standard, and we must prove twice as capable before getting half the acceptance.
There is no dearth of accomplished women, what is needed though is visibility and celebration of their thought leadership. While in the real world, women may attribute their lack of visibility to factors such as the glass ceiling, the world of social media has eliminated gatekeepers. Social media is a great platform because nothing and no one stops you from creating your tribe and highlighting your cause. It presents an opportunity that historically was never available to us.
The other reason to focus on social media is that while it presents an enormous opportunity, women are already starting to lose ground there. As NY times notes:
"...the social media are overall feminized, but the perception is that the dominant figures within are masculine. Why should we care? Because unless this changes, new media will not fulfill its potential to become a truly democratic source of news. It will remain a place that values tradition over innovation, conventional wisdom over new ideas, stuck in an echo chamber of voices we’ve already heard and perspectives that many of us don’t share."
The online world must not reflect the real world where men are five times more likely to be quoted even on women’s issues. Nor should our presence only be of interest only for serving the profit margins of the corporate world. We are not just consumers, not just statistics, we are also contributors whose accomplishments have to be highlighted for its own sake. Social media represents a contested space and women must stake their claim to it.
Global role models for a global world
As the names started trickling in, I realized something else that made the search important. While the world debates whether women can or can’t have it all, there is an important question that no one asks. If we want things to change, are we providing women with positive role models the world over?
Globally the younger generation women are spending more time online on social media networks and taking cues from what they see and read in spaces they inhabit. Let that space not be filled only with details of a celebrity wife plotting to get away from her high profile husband. Let’s provide the younger women and men with connections to and portraits of women the world over who have carved a path and blazed a trail for themselves. That is the only way to break the leader equals male prototype.
The list of role models has to be as diverse and colorful as the real world we live in. Else it creates a ‘capability myth’ around ‘what’ type of women and ‘where’ can they rise to the top. I also realized that without a list of role models from Asia, we will never fully exploit the potential of the online world with no walls.
If all the stories we highlight and hear are form one part of the globe we will suffer all the dangers of a single story, which leads us to have a fractured world view about what women can and can’t do.
And then there were..?
So what happened of my list, you ask. Well, I finally created a list for India, because that is where my most of my Asian connections lie. It was more than 25 women, it was 51 !
Not just Bollywood stars or corporate superstars but also ethnographers, social media gurus, TED-x fellows; travel writers, food critics and many more. More than 2000 people shared it in less than a week. Clearly, the need for the list resonated with many. It became the WOW (wisdom of women) factor list that set the ball rolling for many conversations on the topic.
I am hoping that this list will inspire you to go out and search and create your own list and more importantly promote it by inviting the women the world over to follow, share and contribute to it.
Twitter has no glass ceiling and it is up to us to make the most of such platforms to create, curate and celebrate women and their ideas. If we don’t take up our own agenda, no one else will.
So which list will you start curating today? Do tell me and I will look for it on twitter: @tanvi_gautam.