Gender hierarchies persist online despite more female entrepreneurs

ITHACA, N.Y. – Self-employed women working in digital creative industries such as blogging or marketing feel compelled to conduct business online in a traditionally feminine way, according to a new Cornell University study. This includes maintaining social media personas that display modesty, sociality and “an aura of decorum” – the same restrictions that often apply to women in off-line business settings.

“I doubt workers – male or female – in traditionally masculine-coded industries such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields experience these same demands,” said the study’s author, Brooke Duffy, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and an expert on gender and social media. “While it’s inspiring that we are seeing a rise in female entrepreneurship in the digital age, these business categories tend to be highly feminized. This means that gender hierarchies and inequalities in the world of work endure.”

Duffy and co-author Urszula Pruchniewska of Temple University published their study in Information, Communication & Society.

The authors interviewed self-employed women professionals working in digital media, including professional blogging, writing, entertainment and marketing. Often, the entrepreneurs were caught in what the researchers called a “digital double-bind.” On one hand, they participated in the traditionally masculine-coded category of entrepreneurship, where figures like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and founder Jeff Bezos are often upheld as paragons of success; on the other, they were constrained by feminine stereotypes. That resulted in taking on more work and risk than men to ensure the success of their online ventures.

The entrepreneurs felt obligated to use social media to build their brands in an understated way; cultivate intimate relationships with audiences, clients and peer networks; and share their personal lives in a professional context. These strategies adhere to gender roles that cast women as social and emotionally expressive – and emphasize the social prescription that women should be modest about their achievements.

“By framing these successes as ‘organic’ rather than calculated or hard-won, interviewees effectively conceal the time and energy required to participate in networking and marketing activities, rhetorically distancing themselves from overt self-promotion,” the authors wrote.

In addition, the entrepreneurs felt obligated to put their private lives on public display to cultivate relationships with clients. The authors linked this obligation to act “feminine” on social media to a long history of women’s devalued, unpaid labor, from child care and domestic work to the “emotional labor” implicit in the service industries.

“Though our culture valorizes self-enterprise and prods young people that ‘We’re all entrepreneurs now,’ it’s important to keep in mind the many ways in which digital media amplifies – rather than challenges – traditional norms and social hierarchies,” Duffy said.


Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.