The Role of Gender in Harnessing Social Capital

By Shani Akirov

Is it a boy or a girl?

Typically the first question asked of a new-born baby. Across the diversity of human societies, the question of gender arises at the very beginning of life and plays a central role throughout. Our experiences and perspectives are all shaped by this accident of birth. If humans are a gendered species, they are also a social one. But what difference does gender make to the way we use our social networks to harness social capital, and our success at doing it?

Social capital generally refers to our social network and our contacts (our friends, acquaintances, business contacts and wider circle) as if it were an economic resource – something with a value. Not necessarily a financial value, but a value – something that has the potential to be transformed into things that can bring us concrete benefits which either propel us forward in our lives or which make life more enjoyable or enriching. This could be as simple as being friendly with a nightclub owner who can ‘hook us up’ with a table on short notice, allowing us to impress an important business contact on a night out by appearing to be well-connected. Or it could be finding a lifelong friend and mentor who can steer us through key moments in our lives.

The term social network refers to any social network in the broadest sense. Let us make this clear – we may be millennials, but we fully appreciate that ‘social network’ does not necessarily mean an online social network, like Facebook. We understand that social networks have existed for centuries and that Facebook is simply a piece of technology that helps us to maintain our social network – it is arguably not a social network in itself. However, we have tended to focus on online social networks in our study. That is simply because online social networks are easier to study and to measure. A typical Facebook user can tell you (with reasonable accuracy) how many friends they have, the gender split, geographic split, etc. The technology exists to measure who ‘added’ who, in a way that isn’t possible in real-world social networks.

All of us will seek to use our relationship with another human being – be it social, romantic, professional, familial or other (or a combination thereof) – in order to realise a concrete benefit for ourselves or for someone or something of importance to us. We will seek to harness our social capital. We ‘harness’ our social capital whenever we successfully convert our social contacts so as to deliver concrete results like those above. It is not only the person seeking the favor who harnesses their social capital.

The ways in which we seek to harness social capital – and the opportunities to do so which are available to us – will differ considerably depending on the gender of the person seeking to harness and the person being harnessed. Much of this is due to the relationship between sexual dynamics and power. In most human societies, power has traditionally been (and largely still is) concentrated in the hands of men. If we find ourselves in the position of needing to harness a social contact, the person whom we need to harness is more likely to be a man.

We conducted a survey in Tel Aviv, Israel. The sample was 30 anonymous users from our social networks. It comprised 24 questions. The majority (57%) of participants were aged from 18 to 24 years, while 33% were aged 25 to 34 years, 7% between 35 and 44 years, and 3% were aged 45 years or above. The ratio between sexes was roughly equal with 53% female and 47% male (16:14) participants. In terms of relationship status, 60% described themselves as single and 37% in a relationship (whether married or otherwise). A stubborn 3% said ‘it’s complicated’.

Most of the population (73%) believed the gender balance of their social networks to be roughly equal. When asked about random people messaging the participants from the opposite sex it revealed a gender difference in networking. The data revealed that the 37% that said they would not answer a message of the opposite sex, were mostly female while the 33% that said they would answer at face value were mostly male. This also rolls over to the other options where suspecting negative motivations based on sex came from women and suspecting negative motivations based on money came from men. The other two answers came from two women where one said she would answer after two days and the other said it depends. In addition, when asked how confident the participant is in asking for help the majority all were in the average medium area while few fell to the sides, but most revealed the comfort they have in their social networks.

The differences were measurable but less pronounced than may have been expected. We suspect this may be due to the sample group being younger, more affluent, more urban, more liberal and more cosmopolitan than the norm, and hence exhibiting less gender difference and less strict adherence to gender norms than would be shown in a broader societal survey.

The above is based on academic research conducted by Shani Akirov and Sivahn Gottlieb at IDC Herzliya, Israel, 2015.

My Feminist Valentine’s

By Anonymous

As I write this article, I realise that I am a textbook cliche. I am sitting alone, at home, watching Netflix with a bar of chocolate and swiping my way through Tinder one squatting-with-induced-animal-whilst-travelling picture at a time, crying (nay, weeping), whilst on my period. There’s nothing worth watching that I haven’t already seen and I can’t even have a glass of wine to calm me down because I am on antibiotics. I am angry and frustrated at the world and, for the first time in weeks, the root of that anger and frustration isn’t Donald Trump or the Brexit debate but the £3.20 fee I paid this afternoon for my overdue library book. It was unjust and highly upsetting.

I’m not even a good cliche. And just as I think my poor, entitled, millennial, ‘I’m-in-a-secure-job-earning-decent-money-but-it’s-not-the-dream’ life can’t get any worse, I realise what day it is on Tuesday: Valentine’s Day. Great.

Once again, for what feels like the billionth time in my twenty-five year old life, I find myself single on Valentine’s Day. Tinder certainly isn’t helping my current situation. I stare at the 200+ matches waiting idly on my phone. It’s like watching paint dry, except it’s worse because in this allegory, paint is my love life and it’s drying up pretty quickly.

I know, Valentine’s Day is a consumerist holiday, personified by patriarchal and heteronormative traditions which reinforces sexist stereotypes. And I know, I’m a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a man. However, I still continue to feel sorry for myself because, as much as I try to overcome the pressures attached to 14th February every year, society tells me not to and I let it get to me. I have received several emails every day to this effect from generic, above-average chain restaurants offering me deals for two at their establishment. At this stage, I think I’m more upset that I can’t claim my discounted bottle of Prosecco and send an awkward emotionally repressed Valentine’s card, than I am about not having somebody to wake up next to in the morning. But it’s pretty much tantamount to the same problem at the end of the day. I am single and I am being punished for it.

However, whilst 14th February is most known for red hearts and flowers, Tuesday is also V-Day: a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. V-Day “generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sex slavery.” Violence against women and girls is pervasive, universal and cannot be ignored.

This year’s theme is Solidarity to End the Exploitation of Women and the facts on why we should be supporting such campaigns speak for themselves: an estimated 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting in 30 countries, according to new estimates published on the United Nations’ International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in 2016. To get involved, check out the One Billion Rising campaign. A political resistance campaign to end violence against women and girls worldwide is definitely worth loving.

In honour of one of my heroines, Leslie Knope, I will also be celebrating Galentine’s Day. What’s Galentine’s Day, you ask? In the words of Leslie Knope herself, “Oh it’s only the best day of the year. Every February 13th, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and our boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair, minus the angst. Plus frittatas.” As the saying goes,  “Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.” That’s surely something to celebrate. 

For what it’s worth, I’m not against Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is ultimately about love and affection and I think we could all agree that the world could use a lot more love right now. This doesn’t mean that it needs to be realised in the form of a partner, although of course it can be. But today, for one of the few times (if not only time) in my adult life, I will quote Justin Bieber: “You should go and love yourself” because, after all, love fights hate. Love wins.