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Marketplace Morning Report

How women landed the invisible work of social media labor

Peter Balonon-Rosen Jun 1, 2018
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Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

When companies write a job description, they’re putting to paper the qualities and traits of their idealized candidates.

You don’t have to look far to find terms like “assertive,” “self-motivated,” “leading” and “management.” Or references to “collaboration,” “people skills,” “friendliness” and “organization.”

And those wordings can produce a form of bias that produces more male candidates or female candidates. Researchers have found that first group of words are associated with jobs predominantly filled with men; that second group with jobs predominantly filled with women.

And this language is playing out in a large way in a budding labor force: social media workers.

While the technology field is dominate by men, 70 to 80 percent of social media work is performed by women. It’s an increasingly important job in the 21st century, yet social media labor is often sidelined as work that comes with characteristic invisibility, lower pay and marginal status within the technology field. And that can start with the language used to in job listings. Employers are, in a sense, constructing a blueprint of who they imagine their ideal candidate to be.

“Essentially, someone who can embody what sociologists describe as emotional labor,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell. “The terms ‘passion’ and enthusiastic’ were kind of this persistent refrain” of feminine wording, she said. “There was also an emphasis on ‘community building’ and someone who is ‘caring,’ sociable,’ ‘giving,’ ‘generous.'”

Duffy co-authored a recent study that analyzed the text of over 150 job listings and found that employers constructed workers in ways that emphasized sociability, emotional management and flexibility — not social media technical skills.

Social media work tends to be rendered invisible, not just because of the behind-the-screen nature of its work, but also in terms of pay and status.

“Think about the status that coders and developers have. They’re valorized, they’re heavily paid,” Duffy said. “Young women who want to work in tech may be marginalized through the recruitment into these particular fields.”

In our digital economy, social media work takes on many faces. It’s pushing the online content we interact with every day. It’s being the voice of a company. It’s dealing with angry customers. It’s dealing with angrier trolls. It’s changing headlines to be social media friendly. There’s an entire social media strategy that social media workers create, develop and deploy to garner likes, favorites and shares.

“The irony, of course, is to be good at this job, you, as the worker, are actually rendered invisible,” Duffy said.

Duffy’s study is far from the first to look at how language bias plays out in job descriptions. A 2011 study found that gendered wording can reinforce existing group-based inequalities and can lead people of the opposite gender to stay away from applying to those jobs. It even inspired people to make tools to check job descriptions against words the study identified as gendered.

Think you can spot gendered language? Take our quiz.

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