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.

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