Watching Annie Duke beat out a half-dozen male competitors in the World Poker Tournament
this week, I experienced an odd case of déjà vu
. It wasn't because of some Proustian memory of my own poker prowess — far from it, infact. Rather, what I felt was an odd sort of parallel universe with something I've been ruminating about for some time: namely, my presence here on Design Observer
as the sole female contributor, and the scarcity of women who regularly participate in discussions here on this site.
Before I cast myself as the Gloria Steinhem of weblogs (let alone the woman champion of anything
) consider this: the blogisphere is expected to include ten million participants by the end of this year, yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of women readers who regularly post comments on this
site. (You know who you are.) And while I suspect we have a good deal more who routinely visit here, I suspect that, when all is said and done, blogging remains a particularly male phenomenon.
And why? To the extent that women understand and appreciate the diaristic nature of blogging, one might easily expect them to proliferate in great abundance. And in principle, they do: a recent survey
found that females are slightly more likely than males to create blogs, accounting for 56.0% of all hosted blogs. Over 90% of those initating weblogs are under the age of 30: of these, adolescent women slightly outnumber their male counterparts when it comes to hosting — not surprising in the sense that blogs can provide a kind of whisper-down-the-lane outlet for randomized teenage angst. The frequency with which most single-host blogs are subsequently abandoned by their owners testifies to the limitations of this type of audience. (Demographers refer to this as a "nanoaudience.")
And what can be said of female bloggers
over the age of 18? Professional women working in technology industries
seem to have yielded greater success with blogs that embrace issues of topical concern
to their industry. More promising, still, is the idea that weblogs can bypass cultural and geographic embargoes, offering alternative channels for personal expression. The BBC reported not long ago that blogging has opened up communication options for women in Iran,
where women host the majority of some 1200 Persian blogs.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of women and their presence online remains a paradoxical one. Women seem to be routinely outnumbered by men when it comes to design discussions,
at least where web design is concerned. (A designer in the Bay Area muses about this rather poetically here.
) At the same time, many internet-based chat rooms and bulletin boards are heavily frequented by women who are united in their pursuit of certain common interests: while design factors among them, family-oriented topics (child rearing, what to make for dinner) seem especially popular, but so are health, beauty, gardening and even pre-pregnancy advice boards where women compare tips on how to boost their fertility.
Laugh if you must, but such support systems lie at the core of community-based sites where traffic patterns are both active and consistent. Make no mistake: there is serious brand loyalty here. What these online destinations may lack in serious content they compensate for in a kind of deeply felt sustenance: the best audience for the kind of emotional bloodletting on these sites is, infact, other women — and those women constitute anything
but a nanoaudience.
Arguably, for as many women as there are online comparing recipes or menstrual cycles, there are an equal number reflecting upon issues of greater consequence.
Or are they? Is the reason there's never been a woman in the White House due to our preoccupation with the minutiae of everyday life, which translates to a kind of inability to truly focus — an area of expertise in which men tend to excel? Does the multitasking for which women are often lauded present inpenetrable obstacles in the race for single-minded achievement, performance and classic, capitalist definitions of success? Is there a reason why the famous people examined here — Bruce Mau, Neville Brody, Eero Saarinen,
to name a few — are all male? (As the author of the Ladislav Sutnar
piece, let me be the first to admit that on this score, I'm probably as guilty as the next guy.)
But wait a minute: are these the only designers deemed worthy of blog space? A decade ago, Ellen Lupton and Laurie Haycock Makela published an essay in Eye Magazine
about what they termed an underground matriarchy
in design. Their essay focused on particular women who had a critical impact on the way design is studied, taught and valued in contemporary culture. What is most remarkable about this correspondence is the way Laurie and Ellen independently examined, reflected upon and processed information; how their critical position(s) emerged from a kind of circumspect exploration of a number of issues — social, emotional, critical, metaphorical — resulting in a kind of ideological multitasking. It would have been ideal material for a blog: conversational, yet critical; reflective, yet provocative; educational, yet inspirational. I'd argue this pluralistic idea-processing is highly characteristic of the way many, if not most women think. It is not, in general, the way men think. And I think that blogs, in general — and this blog, in particular — would benefit greatly from a little less male design-lumninary hero worship, and a little more attention to the real issues facing and framing design criticism.
As to where all this is heading, who knows? It's all a poker game. Which brings me back to the subject of Annie Duke. I noticed while watching her on television that — unlike her male competitors, who each wore wedding bands — Annie's left hand was ringless. My thoughts immediately drifted to the wives, those poker widows back home making it possible for their husbands to compete in a big world tournament, while I pitied the poor single, female player.
So much for assumptions: it turns out that Annie Duke is happily married, with four children. She has advanced degrees from Columbia and Penn in literature and cognitive science, respectively. And what do you know? She even has a blog.