How to negotiate the gender divide on social media

Megan Powell du Toit offers some advice from the front line

“Don’t be so emotional. You are hurting your own cause. You need to look at it objectively.”

This is the kind of advice women receive from men all the time on social media. That is, when they aren’t being ignored. Especially when it comes to issues related to gender. Maybe these men think they are helping the tone of public debate. But to my mind, they have misunderstood the reality behind the differing way men and women interact on social media.

When it comes to gender issues, women often respond from a place of trauma. Some men seem both unconscious of how this might affect responses and also how common this trauma is. They also seem unaware sometimes that the trauma experienced by women is ongoing.

Often, while such issues are being debated in public, a rawer conversation happens via private message. I can guarantee that any public debate around a gender issue will generate many private conversations, in which women reveal to each other hidden pain, terrible secrets, and fears for the safety of themselves and others.

Calls from men to respond non-emotively ignore the reality of the effect of trauma but also ignore the deep sense of mission such women have to prevent this trauma happening to others.

Another problem is when women are told not to express their anger. This ignores the reality that often change doesn’t occur until women express their anger (A recent book makes this point from history).

The very men who would be helpful participants in such discussions are often the most reluctant to engage in them publicly.

Some men have picked up the perils of these online discussions and have confided to me that they are afraid of participating in them. One fear is that they will be perceived as the bad guy. Others are aware that female voices are often drowned out and don’t want to add to this. Yet another fear is that, by speaking publicly in support of women, they might be seen to be a hypocritical ally.

Knowing that men can appear to be allies but are anything but in their private lives, some men are reluctant to “virtue signal”.

It has often struck me that the very men who would be helpful participants in such discussions are often the most reluctant to engage in them publicly.

When men participate on social media, many of them have the advantage of roles that command respect.

But while men and women both experience anxiety about these discussions, what makes them more difficult for women is the power imbalance. Sometimes we think social hierarchies don’t exist in the free-for-all of social media. But of course they do, particularly in the interconnected world of Australian Christian social media.

When men participate on social media, many of them have the advantage of roles that command respect. They are lead pastors, denominational leaders, academics, well-known authors and speakers. Sure, some women fill these roles but much less frequently. So a common scenario is a woman engaging with a more powerful man online.

Some people seem to be able to build up a social media presence beyond their offline roles. However, men still have an advantage here. The evangelical distrust of opposite sex friendships means that men have a greater social network advantage. I wonder whether evangelical men are more likely both to friend and interact with other men online. I’ve had more than one man confide in me that he was worried about appearing to be “into” a woman if he interacted with her too much online – a concern that didn’t affect their male-to-male interactions. Take a look at the size of evangelical male leaders’ friend lists against those of female leaders – and you will see what I mean.

As well, women’s voices find it harder to be heard in general. This affects the way we interact online. Women will tend to be more apologetic and tentative, which compounds the problem. On the other hand, it can also mean that women become too sensitised and ready to react to perceived overbearing behaviour, even if no such intention existed. However, just because a man formed no intention to patronise or bully a woman doesn’t mean he hasn’t done so. We often follow cultural patterns without realising the attitudes they betray.

On that note, we should be aware of the words we use to refer to women as opposed to men. A good way to check ourselves on this is to consider whether the words we have used we would use if talking about or addressing a man.

The abuse of women online is a very real and horrific problem.

There is a lot of advice out there about how women can be taken more seriously on social media. I’ve been told to avoid some of the lighthearted posts I make. My observation is that for men, such posts serve to humanise them, but for women can be thought to underline their triviality. This is despite the reality that most of us live full lives replete with seriousness and triviality in equal measure.

Women are often, in effect, told to either behave like men or to retire to a female-only social media ghetto. The tendency of women to treat discussions as a relational interaction rather than an abstract debate also comes under fire for some. Women are known to take a more relational approach to social media. We often complain about online arguments – wouldn’t they work better with more relational focus?

One final observation before I move on to advice. The abuse of women online is a very real and horrific problem. This can make women genuinely afraid of having a public online profile and being outspoken within it. This is something we all should be aware of and have zero tolerance towards.

Since many men have privately sought my advice about this topic, I offer some public advice here in the hope that it might be useful.

Be quick to hear and affirm viewpoints given by women. Come from a place of humility and willingness to learn rather than defensiveness. If you display such an attitude, rather than virtue signalling, you will be seen as embodying the respect you espouse. If you are worried about whether you should say something, maybe run it past a woman you trust.

Do everything you can to break down the gender siloes. Interact with women. Friend us. Repost our posts. Acknowledge our contributions. Stand up for any woman you see being disrespected online. Avoid obvious creepiness, such as sexualised comments and unreciprocated private contact. If you want a scriptural warrant – this is treating women as your sisters on social media. More than that, it follows the model of Jesus, whose friendly respectful engagement with women was in the face of cultural disapproval.

Women, don’t feel you have to behave in a stereotypically masculine fashion to be taken seriously. Be confident that you have a unique voice and contribution. Jump into discussions knowing you have something of worth to contribute. Be aware, too, of how culture has shaped your own reactions to gender interactions. Prioritise the amplification and support of other women online. Treat men as brothers by respecting them enough to let them know when they are out of line but with a grace that remembers we are all struggling together.

I believe social media has done us a service – it has brought these gender conversations into the open, into a place in which men and women can engage with each other. The gospel has torn down the barrier between men and women, making us one in Christ Jesus – so maybe for the gospel’s sake we should start dismantling the barriers on evangelical social media.

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