Leading online communities: is there a gender perspective? Your point of view

There are whole worlds of computer science and IT professionals that are not Silicon-Valley-centric; and it seems like a fair number of academics and practitioners are going to be converging on Milan for the 2008 World Computer Congress on Sept. 7-10.

The agenda is full of events intriguingly titled Biologically Inspired Cooperative Computing, Human Computer Interaction, Open Source Systems, Distributed and Parallel Embedded Systems, and includes some IFIP (International Federation for Information Processing) working group symposia and conferences on such diverse topics as Artificial Intelligence, Entertainment Computing, Information Security, and Theoretical Computer Science. If you have a professional interest in open source business models, don’t miss the keynote address by Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of Funambol (one of the few, it seems, Silicon Valley speakers at the Congress).

Women and Technologies - Milan, September 8, 2008

I am honored to have been invited for a small part in a panel at a non-technical hosted conference, Women and Technologies: Research and Innovation, organized by the formidable Gianna Martinengo, founder of human learning and knowledge management solutions pioneer Didael.

Since I am a mere practitioner with no academic background in the matter, I will try to bring some practical knowledge to the discussion. To make a long story short, the issue for my panel discussion is whether, contrary to expectations and historical norms, women may end up being better leaders of online communities (or virtual communities) than men. In the words of the organizers (full briefing here if you’d like to read more):

Disciplines such as Philosophy, Linguistics, Law are very popular among women. Practices such as conversation, argumentation, group management are women’s specialties. Is it not the case that, contrary to the common preconception, women may be today privileged in the developments and use of the next generation ICTs?

As a starting point, my answer would be no. On the contrary, I am inclined to recognize that a lot of hours logged on World of Warcraft, far from exposing slackers with a weak work ethic, may actually be a predictor of leadership potential (a hypothesis that is strong enough to be explored in a recent Harvard Business Review article about the organizational features of MMORPGs, “Leadership’s Online Labs”, by Byron Reeves, Thomas W. Malone, and Tony O’Driscoll).

I myself, unfortunately, haven’t had the pleasure of leading 25 guild members in a six-hour raid on Illidan the Betrayer’s temple fortress. But I like the MMORPG example because it highlights a few characteristics that leaders of communities ought to have, and, in my experience, are less likely to appear as demonstrated competences in women’s resumes than in men’s:

  1. Passion: leading communities requires true passion for the matter at hand. It may become a consuming 24/7 experience, and it’s never “just a job”. Yet, women’s frequent desire to set boundaries (in the name of a chimerical “work-life balance”) works against them in this respect.
  2. A systemic view of the world: whether simple or complex, communities are dynamic entities, exhibiting unpredictable behaviors (think of the “butterfly effect”) and nonlinear returns. A good leader thinks ahead, recognizes interrelationships, and is prepared for the unexpected (again, MMORPGs seem to be a fitting example). I would propose that a solid background in engineering or computer science may be a better preparation for these opportunities than the study of more “feminine” disciplines such as sociology, linguistics, philosophy or law.
  3. A moral core: here I do think that both genders start out equally, as both women and men are equally capable of integrity, authenticity and accountability. Yet, in practice, we are less likely to seek out opportunities where those of us who excel at these qualities would stand out (just think about politics and the often-heard case that it repels women due to its level of corruption). As a result, even when we are intrinsically gifted, we don’t shine.

That’s a quick list I brainstormed by myself (and yes, I do have brainstormings scheduled with some other people before the conference… in spite of being an Introvert, I am trying to move beyond the university-exam-solitary-cram mode when preparing for such events). But I would like your opinion, my readers. Have you played a role in one or more online communities? What makes a person a talented and effective leader of an online community? And are those characteristics more likely to be found in men, in women, or equally distributed?

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