A circular argument is a beautiful thing. Smooth and satisfying, and most important of all, no jagged edges to tear at your sense of security. So when the question is, “Why aren’t there more women on the Indy’s Twitter 100 list?” the answer can be, “Because women are a bit crap.” That’s Laura Davies’ take, anyway, in a comment piece for the Independent.
Women need to support each other more, she says. We need to be nicer to each other, because at the moment, women are our own worst enemies. She points to her own experience – fewer female followers than male, fewer retweets from women than men – and concludes that the problem is intra-gender rivalry. Well, maybe. I’ve written before about the pervasive belief that maleness is the normal state, and femaleness is some extraordinary niche condition. Women as well as men think this way. It’s the grammar of society. If you draw a picture of a cartoon animal, everyone understands that it’s a boy. If you want people to know they’re looking at a girl, there’s only one thing for it: stick a great pink bow on it.
As much as women achieve and create every working day, most people have acquired a mental map where women occupy that small corner with a pink bow on. This can be a double-bind for the ambitious XX-type person. You’re a woman and you want to succeed, but you don’t want your success to be defined by gender. So you turn away from the areas corralled within the pink bow and try your luck in the big wide world – but of course, the big wide world has been comfortably occupied by people who can see the cerise ribbon looped around your neck a mile off and know you don’t belong with them.
That’s why such perverse gender imbalances persist – like the fact that roughly three quarters of newspaper reports are bylined to men, while women get to enjoy the pink-ribonned section called “women’s pages” or “life and style”. Clearly, this is preposterous. Women are every bit as affected by politics, economics, international news, health and science. There’s no reason why such stories shouldn’t be covered by an evenly split pool of male and female journalists – no reason, apart from the longstanding belief reaching back through decades of education and upbringing that women do women things, and men do everything else, and women things are a bit frivolous and tedious so please be a poppet and keep them in your own pullout section.
Now here’s the thing about Twitter: it’s undone that way of thinking for me, hopefully forever. Prior to my immersion in the tweet stream (and I’m not particularly proud to say this) I think I worked on the assumption that most women were less likely to be interesting than most men. If I wanted to talk politics, news and ideas, I needed men to talk to. Female conversation was for the small and decorative stuff. (I have pre-Twitter female friends, of course, and I think I sustained my categorisations by understanding them as exceptions.) But as I made connections on Twitter, what I found was the obvious: that most women were, more or less, like me. We follow the news. We snark at politics. We talk fashion and baking and exercise and other “women’s pages” stuff, and we do it with the same smarts and funnies that we apply to the supposedly serious stuff.
I don’t presume that everyone started out quite as stupid as me, but I’d be surprised if I’m the only person who’s had this experience. And through Twitter, I’ve met and formed friendships with lots of women who I wouldn’t have met any other way. We chat, advise each other, put work each other’s way when we can, and sometimes I’m really lucky and get one of them to write a preposterously funny guest post for my blog. Maybe the problem isn’t that women don’t support each other on Twitter, but that Twitter’s one of the few outlets where women can roam outside the ribbon. Social media unavoidably reflects our prejudices, but I think it helps us undo them as well.