Professionals walk a tightrope in managing what they share on social media and what they hide, say Syed Imran Saqib and Aparna Gonibeed.
Social media has provided a democratic platform to individuals to express their voice and identity, but at the same time such interactions can unwittingly shape the perceived identity of users.
This has far-reaching repercussions on the world outside of social media, and disproportionately more for women than for men, especially if that identity is not consistent with the typical image expected of them by society. Thus, organisations have a role to play in helping women navigate their presence in the nebulous world of social media.
Identity regulation refers to curating and managing one’s identity in order to present an image which is more acceptable and palatable both in the professional and personal spheres. Identity regulation in social media manifests itself through holding back one’s views, thoughts, and one’s true identity.
In today’s workplace the only thing worse than having a negative image online is to not have any social media presence. Consequently, we find that professionals walk a tightrope in managing what they share on social media and what they hide.
In a joint study of Indian IT professionals by the Work and Equalities Institute at AMBS and the Centre for Decent Work and Productivity at Manchester Metropolitan University, we found that this identity regulation is undertaken by both men and women, but the process and motivation is markedly different for women in the South Asian context.
Young professionals of both genders flounder and experiment about how to present an ‘acceptable identity’ in the absence of direct cues and guidance. However, for men the focus is on presenting an identity that would show them in the image of an ‘ideal corporate man’.
For women, the process is more complicated and is informed by the traditional gender roles expected of them. In addition, they are more likely to face a backlash online. For example, women are less likely to share elements of their personal life or even hold back ideas within the company intranets amid fears of being misjudged as they are more likely to be trolled and abused online.
The inability to present one’s authentic self leads to a tremendous cognitive load, potentially impacting work productivity and wellbeing. In addition, as this identity regulation is guided by uncertainty and inconsistent cues about what is acceptable, it can lead to women holding back and restricting interactions on social media.
When there is so much premium on visibility this can be a disadvantage in career progression, especially when women choose to disengage with company-run social media for fear of being misjudged.
So how can organisations support women in managing their social media interactions? Even though this support is equally important for all genders, we underscore the importance of these interventions for women because they are more likely to disengage from the medium. In our study we offer the following recommendations:
Social media guides. Many organisations have social media guidance on employee conduct online but they largely focus on avoiding reputational damage. They should go a step further in providing coaching to their employees about how to manage their social media interactions and to create a professional, yet authentic, identity which moves from a punitive tone to an enabling tone.
Technical support. Nowadays social media platforms allow the editing of privacy settings and content for old posts. Engaging in regular social media clean-ups by moderating/editing and/or deleting content on a regular basis is a good idea. Access to technical support and/or workshops to navigate editing on different platforms can save time for employees and help them to manage their profiles better.
Behaviour modelling. The organisation should identify women leaders or peers who have an effective presence online and can serve as role models for other women professionals. They could match these mentors with employees (preferably) in similar career pathways so that they can emulate the way the more experienced professionals communicate their opinions and messages online, especially when it relates to venting and/or offering political and potentially controversial opinions.
Tolerance for experimenting with the ‘real’ self. Organisations should allow employees to experiment with their authentic selves rather than pigeon-holing everyone in the image of an ‘ideal’ corporate identity with an emphasis on celebrating diverse identities.
Line manager/HR training. Social media invariably leads to the blurring of personal and professional lives. This may result in grey areas between friendship and professional relationships which could be more problematic for women, as our research suggests. Line and HR managers need training in dealing with such conflicts and intervene as needed.
In summary, as important as organisational support is, we also believe that women (and men) should be their own social media ‘guru’. In other words, they should identify a set of rules consistent with their values and comfort level and think of social media as part of a professional portfolio that needs to be mindfully managed.
Dr Syed Imran Saqib is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Employment Studies at Alliance Manchester Business School.
Dr Aparna Gonibeed is a Senior Lecturer in People and Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.