Close-up: Can the web close the gender divide?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 08 April 2011 12:00AM

Lisa De Bonis looks at the impact women's increasing influence online might have.

The centre of gravity in the digital world has shifted. Cast your mind back to when the early commercial drivers of the web - such as gaming or porn - were about as individualistic and "boysie" as it gets. Hours spent alone in a room with the curtains drawn. And that was just the gaming. But not any more. The explosion of social networking - and the integration of social features in just about every aspect of digital culture - has subtly shifted the commercial focus of the web.

Increasingly, it's women who are driving the action. And we're not just talking about readily assembled communities such as tweens on Stardoll or first-time mums on Mumsnet. Seventy per cent of women have now purchased online, and the 35- to 49-year-old female segment is easily the fastest-growing in social media. Women have overtaken men on Twitter, Foursquare and YouTube usage. In gaming, 74 per cent of casual games are bought by women; and they're now spending twice as much as men on virtual goods. And the major online growth areas? High-street shops, fashion, health and wellbeing - all strongly female-led.

Increasingly, it's the girls who are spending the cold, hard cash. Social commerce (shopping together online with your friends) is the next big commercial frontier in digital, and women are leading it. Early Facebook stores - Asos, Dove, Levi's Curve - have a distinctly female focus. And it's going to be big. Social commerce has gone from zero to $5 billion in a blink; and in the next five years, that will grow to $30 billion as travel, luxury and even car brands come to the party.

This gathering importance of women is already subtly reflected in tech trends. We're entering "The Age of Calm Technology", when digital investment is switching from flashier, tech-led and sometimes ephemeral innovation to more emotionally intelligent design. Think of the "like" button or Voucher Cloud app. A female consumer-friendly shift in emphasis, in other words, from features to benefits. Good thing too, I say. But there's an emerging disconnect in all of this.

Women may be driving the numbers, but industry and business have been slow to decode that the way women think, behave and spend is in itself huge business.

Only 1 per cent of women think tech manufacturers have them in mind when designing their products. In fact, 71 per cent still believe brands only really consider them for beauty and cleaning goods. And lest you think this is simply female paranoia, guess what percentage of open-source developers are women? 1.5 per cent. Which is staggering, when you think about it.

We might be consuming it, but we certainly aren't building it. And the next generation look like following suit. Teenage girls may use the internet as much as boys, but they're five times less likely to consider a technology-related career. So we'd better get moving. Eighty-eight per cent of Wikipedia contributors are male, and we wouldn't want history to be written only by men again.

But I have a sneaking hunch that the future could be looking brighter - and here, as elsewhere, Google and Facebook are leading the way.

In Google's recent Project Oxygen study, tasked to identify and define the key traits of good management, it concluded that employees didn't want their bosses to be more tech-savvy than they were.

The most important traits sought were actually similar to the qualities traditionally believed to make a good parent - the ability to make their people feel appreciated, challenged and protected. Qualities, it concluded, that might arguably come more naturally to women.

And when I listen to the inspiring insights in the TED Talk of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, I'm tempted to believe the digital industry can break the mould and demonstrate, through its intrinsically democratic, empowering and collaborative nature, that it's possible to break down traditional blocks to gender equality and empower a new generation of female leaders to be at the heart of the action.

I hope in 20 years' time, I'm not still looking at a table in Campaign's Annual telling me 90 per cent of chief executives, creative directors and planning heads in this forward-thinking, creative and notably strategic industry of ours are male. That would be rather anti-social.

Lisa De Bonis is the head of strategy at Work Club

70% of women have purchased online
74% of casual games bought by women
71% of women believe brands only consider them for beauty and cleaning
goods

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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