Ciji Heiser and Melissa Robertson had never met face-to-face before the NASPA conference in Orlando in March, where they led a joint session on social media as a tool to empower women. Both in residential life, Heiser is coordinator for assessment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while Robertson is an area coordinator at Purdue University in Lafayette IN.
They discovered a shared interest through Twitter and built on it through Skype video chats. By the time they got to NASPA, they knew each other well.
We have heard for years about the importance of networking. Men have been doing it for decades, sustaining the old boy’s club on the golf course, in the locker room or over a beer after work. Women have to be more intentional about it, especially if they’re in a field or unit where men dominate. “Traditional networking depends on being in the right place at the right time,” Heiser told WIHE.
With online social networking services such as Twitter, the time and place are always right. Your network can be as big as you want. Users can read and send short text messages of up to 140 characters (tweets). You “follow” someone by signing up to receive her tweets. Groups form of people with similar interests, regardless of location or rank.
“Social media is a highly relational thing,” she said, well suited to the ways women communicate. Because tweets are so short, Twitter lends itself to reciprocal and group conversations. Once people connect on Twitter, some may pursue an issue in more depth by email or phone.
Voice at the table
Gaining a voice is a longstanding issue for women. Interactive social media offer a voice in two ways, she said.
First, whole communities of women form online through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and so forth. For example, reading the blog at wisakc.com or following @ WISA_KC on Twitter brings together women in student affairs knowledge communities.
Second, at some points in her career a woman may be literally the only woman at the table, particularly in STEM fields or upper administration. She has no peers in her immediate setting. Women in this situation have been able to find true peers through social media. Women are sometimes shy of taking risks. Confidence builds with the affirmations that they can give each other in 140 characters or less. “You think your ideas are okay, but then you have that outside person to say that’s a really good idea,” Heiser said. It’s empowering to get tweets of encouragement when we start second-guessing ourselves. It takes only 10 characters to say “Go for it!”
Concrete assistance can happen too. Once when she changed jobs, she sent out the information with a simple “wish me luck” message. A stranger wrote back introducing her to people around her new position.
Level playing field
“Social media takes down the barriers in the physical institution. It levels the playing field among women,” Robertson told WIHE. A junior level staff member typically has little access to deans and VPs on campus but may interact with them regularly on Twitter.
Some presidents love talking to students on Twitter, something they might have little other opportunity to do. “Barriers are removed because Twitter is simply about idea sharing and having a conversation,” she said.
She has found mentors through online conversations with women a few levels above her. Online contacts have tapped her for volunteer and job opportunities.
Introverts can find social media an especially effective way to meet people. You are not under a lot of pressure when you add your comment to the conversation. Nobody knows you’re an introvert or at home in your pajamas. If you are headed to a conference where you don’t know anyone, social media lets you engage with others ahead of time. When you meet at the conference, you can continue the conversations that you started online.
At one conference a woman who Robertson greatly admired from a different university, came up to her and started talking. The woman had recognized her name tag from online chats. Their conversation was brief but substantive, a powerful experience she would not have had without social media.
Getting started In addition to following individuals or organizations on Twitter, you can follow networks identified with a hash tag (prefix #). For example, a moderated discussion of topics in student affairs every Thursday uses the hash tag #SAchat. Women who attended the 2010 Women’s Leadership Institute stayed in touch using #wli10, which grew into #WLSalt for women leaders in higher education.
She recommends starting by finding a small number of networks that interest you. Focus to keep from getting overwhelmed. By following a few hash tags, you will come to recognize which people and conversations matter to you. Take your time. Sooner or later you will be moved to jump in.
You may decide to follow some conversations without joining in. If you are considering a move into another work area, this is a way to find out what people in that area are talking about and whether it excites you—without alerting your coworkers that you are thinking about a move. On the other hand, making connections comes through participation. “You have to engage. You have to enter the arena,” Robertson said.
Don’t worry that you will miss something. Of course you will; Twitter is like a river. “The river is constantly moving, and it’s nearly impossible to catch everything that passes by,” she said. Jump in and out when the time is right for you to build networks that empower you on campus.
Twitter handle: @cijiann
Twitter handle: @melpels
Don't forget to follow @womeninhighered
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, May). Using the Twitter Network Empowers Women. Women in Higher Education, 22(5), 13.