Another long list of people in fintech to follow on Twitter with only one woman. Another “best books” recommendation without a single female author. Another “top content of the week” newsletter of podcasts, articles, videos, and social media with just one out of nearly 20 items highlighting a woman.
Having spent my entire career in two male-dominated sectors — sports and fintech — I’m accustomed to professional spaces with few women. But in 2021, it’s jarring to see so many conversations in which women’s voices seem to take a back seat or are nearly absent. Over the past few months, I increasingly began to notice that while those I follow on Twitter skew just slightly male, the content I see — based on what’s shared and who’s most active — is overwhelmingly male.
The need to elevate women’s voices became particularly urgent for me this summer. I wrote a personal essay for the New York Times on my experiences dealing not just with sexism and sexual harassment as a sports reporter, but with being raped by a baseball player. A single tweet in which I shared the story received nearly four million impressions. While most responses were positive, there were also skeptics and trolls — almost exclusively men — who hurled personal accusations or told me, as one commenter did, that “females shouldn’t work in predominantly male environments.” All this has left me thinking more about whose voices are heard and amplified.
What does it matter? It’s just Twitter, right? But leaders across so many industries — including startups, VC, tech, fintech, media, and politics — are active on the platform. And while a presence on Twitter is no guarantee of any success, it can lead to career opportunities, from conference-speaker invites to jobs. Saira Rahman, a vice president at HM Bradley and co-host of the podcast Girls Just Wanna Have Funds, notes that the path to her current job started with a contact from the CEO on Twitter; she also found sponsors for her podcast there. A doctor I follow, Uché Blackstock, tweeted, “Twitter may not be real life, but my literary agent found me on here last year, and now I have a book deal.”
While women are often less likely to be promoted by peers, they’re frequently the targets of the internet’s worst behavior. Amnesty International and Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software product company, surveyed millions of tweets received by journalists and politicians from the U.S. and U.K. in 2017 and found 7.1 percent of tweets sent to women in the study to be “problematic” or “abusive.” Women of color were 34 percent more likely to be targets of troubling tweets than white women. That number jumps to 84 percent for Black women.
The biases playing out on Twitter aren’t exclusive to social media. In researching venture capital funding, Dana Kanze W01, assistant professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, has found that when raising money, women tend to get questions focused on losses, while men get more questions on gains. Further, she tells me, “Female founding CEOs are misperceived to represent a ‘lack of fit’ when raising funds for ventures addressing male-dominated industries, with adverse consequences in terms of funding raised, valuation allocated, and equity retained.”
One solution — simply becoming more present in the Twittersphere — isn’t simple at all. Women on average have less time — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found we spent about one hour more per day than men caring for and helping household children in 2020, and nearly one hour more engaged in household activities such as housework and cooking.
Then there’s the unwelcoming environment itself, which I got a taste of recently in the wake of my Times essay. I received messages saying I should have felt flattered by my assault, since it meant somebody found me attractive. Others said I was lying or looking for a payday. On the flip side of the trolls, though, Twitter was also an incredibly powerful platform for sharing my story: Thanks in part to its reach, my article was one of the paper’s most-read stories that week.
Compared to the social media backlash endured by many women, I had it easy. I spoke with several women in fintech who described receiving horrible messages online. “It kept me up at night,” Rahman told me after a rape threat landed in her DMs. Nina Mohanty, the founder of Bloom Money, who’s based in the U.K., said she’s been followed by white supremacists and had people tell her they hoped she’d be raped and killed. Yet she also has gained much professionally from social media. “To be honest,” she says, “most of my jobs, if they haven’t come directly from Twitter, started and got tipped off via Twitter.”
So how do we break through the noise and filth to make use of Twitter as a valuable professional tool? Theo Lau, founder of Unconventional Ventures and co-author of Beyond Good, has built an audience of more than 50,000 followers on the platform. She offers three suggestions for turning up the volume on women’s voices: Add handles of relevant women to your messages to increase attention and interaction; normalize the conversation by inviting women to participate in panels beyond just those focused on diversity; and if using social media as a source for speakers or job recruiting, consider the reasons why women may have smaller followings. Lau also stresses that if you see someone behaving inappropriately, you should speak up or report it.
I’ve developed meaningful professional relationships and friendships with people I’ve met via Twitter. It’s been a great avenue for me to engage with people in the Spanish startup ecosystem, as I ultimately want to live and work in Spain, and the asynchronous interactions make it easy to learn and build connections while in a different country. In the past few months, I’ve had in-person meetups with a dozen Twitter contacts, from coffee with the founder of a health startup in Barcelona to drinks with a tech entrepreneur in Brooklyn. I’ve crowdsourced restaurant recommendations and translated information about vaccine availability into Spanish for a community organizer. The value is there. The key is sifting through the bad for the good.
Kat O’Brien G11 WG11 is a Lauder Institute alumna who lives in Manhattan. A former sports reporter, she now works at Mastercard when not running or dreaming of Spain.
Published as “A Woman’s Place” in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.