The Messages We Send Each Other

As most of you would be aware, on the announcement of the Storyworld Conference & Expo Advisory Board, Andrea Phillips published a post highlighting “sexism”.

It’s a list I wouldn’t disagree with on other grounds — in fact, it’s a pretty great list. There’s certainly a lot of star power represented there. On the other hand… the teams I’ve been on have been pretty evenly split between men and women. There’s no good reason there should be only two women and eleven men on that board. (And indeed, one of the two women, Alison Norrington, is on there by virtue of being the one organizing the conference.)

I agree with her. In fact, EVERYONE AGREES. No-one is dissenting the fact there is gender blindness. So, what is the problem then? At first for me, I noticed the conversation was devolving into remarks about the list being the same old people. More often than not, such remarks are a veiled attempt to put down the people on the list. This is a subtext of what is happening, but to a lesser degree.

The second thing that concerns me is the focus on Alison. Alison fucked up, and she knows it! She has learned her lesson in a very public trial by fire. As we all know from lessons learned, this is one she will never forget. And it is important to highlight that Alison is not alone (that is the point). Andrea observed her own thought process, and noticed that she too firstly thinks of men in transmedia. I have done it too, and was thankfully gently awoken to my gender blindness by a male colleague. Alison is now aware of it, and many of the people who have read Andrea’s post are now aware of it. This is all good.

But it is important to move away from hanging Alison out to dry here. Indeed, although Andrea says repeatedly the post is not about Alison, a fairer approach would of been to include many other lists that have gender blindness. It perhaps also needs to be said that although the Advisory Board is mostly male, all is not lost! LOL. They, we, are capable of recommending some great people. Further to this, the list of women speakers for this event is already outstanding. Seriously. They.know.their.shit.

In fact, it is great that Andrea has included a list of awesome women working in the area. There are more too. This helps work against the problem. Being conscious of gender blindness is step one, step two is knowing who the women are. I remember when Tara Hunt, CEO & Co-Founder of a Shwowp, put out a similar call to action and list regarding women in technology in 2007: Women Who Risk: Making Women in Technology Visible. She cites the invisibility of women in media, and conferences, recalling the important BlogHer list that was subsequently put together:

The situation of the lack of women as conference speakers has become so dire that BlogHer put together a Women in Technology list that, among other things, watches for new conferences being announced, then swoops in with a long list of very qualified speakers to offer the conference organizers. Lucky for us, our efforts are being recognized by many conference organizers and they are beginning to come to this list for suggestions before the conference has even been announced.

So what else do we need besides lists? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a great speech at TED recently: Why we have too few women leaders (embedded at the bottom of this post). She focuses on what we can do as individuals, asking:

What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women that work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?

Sheryl offers three pieces of advice for those that want to stay in the workforce. Her talk is wonderful, but I’ll concentrate on the first: 1) Sit at the Table. The data shows, Sheryl continues, women systematically underestimate their own abilities, and men overvalue their own. Men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute to it to other external factors. (See the video for a true and astounding thing about women and “likability” too). Men are better at reaching for opportunities than women. We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.

This is why I found it interesting that the majority of women who agreed with Andrea messaged her privately. I can understand the reluctance to be embroiled with anything “political”, but engagement with the topic doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, everyone agrees…! Further to this, I and many others will attest that women are more likely than men to decline, or not even bother responding to invites to public speaking events. And I’ve seen posts about this in other industries, but can’t find them right now. We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.

For me, I reflected on how women usually undervalue themselves and fall into gender blindness themselves and made a (perhaps tenuous) connection between the two. It makes sense that a woman who undervalues herself would view a man as a success. Anything outside of the self is a success if you don’t feel it inside.

I personally want to see more women running transmedia companies, and more importantly, creating original transmedia IP. There are more women working on other people’s stories than their own. Of course, all writing draws from the personal, but conceiving of an entire world imbues with it the ability to share a unique way of seeing. Sit at the friggin’ table.

Some women are public. I hardly blog anymore, but I Twitter and occasionally give talks, and am currently developing my own IP and web service. Andrea decided to be public and do frequent blog posts and talks. Jan Libby does indie ARGs between her branded entertainment jobs. The list goes on. But the point I really want to make with these examples is that no-one came to them and said, can you do this? They did it for themselves. Sure, I get on lists. But while they may occasionally help put food on the table and shelter over my head, they don’t fund my own creative projects or web business. A career doesn’t happen when you’ve been chosen. It isn’t outside of you.

So what I’m saying is, yes, be conscious. Make lists with your eyes open to those around you. We all know how important this is. But this isn’t all that is needed. Indeed, don’t think for a second that you need a list to exist. Open your eyes to yourself too.

Now go and check out Sheryl’s video at TED! (For some reason my embedding isn’t working at the moment.)