The Power Of Knowing You Belong: A Conversation With YouTube Stars Justine And Jenna Ezarik
Leading up to International Women's Day, I have a great story to celebrate women and sisterhood.
A little while ago, I had the opportunity to sit down IRL with YouTube creators and sisters Justine (better known as iJustine) and Jenna Ezarik to talk about their success as women in tech and on YouTube. If you are not familiar with the powerful duo, let me share that Justine has shy of 7 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, where she focused on tech, travel and gaming. Justine also has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and 1.8 million on Twitter. Jenna has over 900k subscribers on YouTube, 199K followers on Twitter and 360K on Instagram. During the pandemic, the sisters launched a podcast together called “ Same Brain” with 28K subscribers and hosted guests such as the Oura Ring CEO, Harpreet Singh Rai, Windows Chief Product Officer, Panos Panay and Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer.
"I never thought of myself as a woman in tech or a female YouTuber," I how Justine opened the conversation. "We were doing what we wanted to do. We never thought about playing Mario as something strange when we were young because our parents always supported us in our interests. But, when we got to high school, people started to make a point about us being female gamers," she added.
The sisters highlight what I hear millennials and Gen Zers mention more and more: the conundrum of wanting women to be assimilated rather than singled out as a group while at the same time following the human desire to find other women who share their experience. This trend, coupled with how teenagers, especially those assigned female gender at birth, are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender, will require a different way of talking about gender in the future. A recent study by the Williams Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles found that, among all teens in California, not just those affiliated with the queer community, 27 percent identified with some level of gender non-conformity. Maybe Justine and Jenna are correct. We should not focus on gender at all and find other characteristics that bring us together.
Justine and Jenna might not have been thinking of themselves as women in tech or women YouTubers, but it seems that others did. The road to stardom was not easy, confesses Justine: "I had so many doors slammed on my face in Hollywood when I moved to Los Angeles in 2007. People thought my videos shot through a camera strapped to my head were silly. This was before Twitch was big. I was so early that it is hard to say if they were critical of me as a woman or what I was trying to do." There is also the conviction by some men YouTubers that being a woman might make the road to success easier or the assumption that whichever technology devices the two sisters would buy must have been bought by their dad "First, why could it not have been my mom who bought it for me?" says Jenna confidently, adding "we are working women in our 30s, we can buy our own tech!" Expectations, especially for two small-town girls, are set around getting married, having kids, getting a dog. They are not about moving to Los Angeles and making a career on the internet. For the two sisters, that small town expectation was never what they wanted. They support their other sister and her young daughter, who, from the sounds of it, is already taking after her aunts' love of technology. But they don't want kids themselves and, in a way, see part of their audience as their kids who grew up with them through the years.
I am curious to know if the gaming and YouTube communities are supportive communities. I know support can be hard to come by for women in many environments, tech included. Both Justine and Jenna agree that it is difficult to generalize. Gaming was a much stricter environment when Jenna started than it is now. Tech creators are a very supportive community of people who know what it takes and are willing to share their knowledge to help one another. From an audience perspective, even though, as of January 2022, 44% of global YouTube users are women, there is a specific expectation of the content women creators should publish. The comments can be brutal or simply push stereotypes: "Why wouldn't you get your nails done before unboxing?"
Jenna would answer: "Because I was editing or filming for 17 hours a day. I didn't have two hours to get my nails done. Are you asking the guys this? Why didn't they get their nails done?" Appearance is something that Justine feels very strongly about. More precisely, about the need to be herself and not have to conform to all those beauty standards of wearing a dress, high heels, and make-up. "Being comfortable with myself, wearing the clothes I want to wear and not wearing make-up, made me more comfortable on camera and made me and my content more accessible. When I first arrived in Hollywood, that was hard to do. Now I feel women are much more willing to address the topic."
Things can also get a bit more severe than criticism of your manicure. "It's definitely scary," says Justine, adding, "And of course, being a woman, you are targeted because people think you're weak. I think that's one of the reasons I started doing more training just to sort of feel like I can take some of that ownership back and just feel a little bit more competent."
Talking about the pay gap is not easy in a creator's world, as many factors at play determine how much you are paid for a job. However, two things are critical for Justine and Jenna to minimize any possible pay gap. First: know your worth and see the kind of value you add to a brand. Second: talk about money. While talking about money has been taboo for so long, creators are certainly started to talk about money more. They compare jobs and pay, they help each other out so they do not undercharge and even the brands have begun to be more open and flag when someone is charging considerably less than someone else.
From a creator's perspective, what would bring more equity is having access to more community managers for YouTube and other platforms so that when there is an issue, you have someone to turn to who will help you resolve it with minimal impact. Most creators diversify their platforms and grow separate audiences to minimize the risk. With that, however, comes the risk of burnout from the pressure of being everywhere. A risk that Justine and Jenna agree is not worth running as it impacts you, your work and most importantly, your family and friends.
As we are getting towards the end of our time, I switch gear and ask Justine whom she would want to interview during her career after having interviewed Tim Cook: "I've been such a huge Apple fan like it since I was a child like I do, like my first book report ever, like in sixth grade, like on Steve Jobs. It was really fun to interview him. I was nervous. I'm not going to lie, and I don't really get nervous very easily. Next, Jim Carrey, because he was actually a huge inspiration when I was younger. Just to be silly and it didn't really matter. You could just express yourself."
YouTubers with high-quality content have become more influential than celebrities from an advertising perspective. When it comes to teens, 70% admit to valuing the opinion of influencers more than the recommendations of traditional celebrities. This is certainly true in the tech space. As a mom of a teenager, I know firsthand how much time they spend watching and listening to YouTubers covering tech, gaming, and social issues and I am grateful for creators like Justine and Jenna, who have built a career on hard work, passion, fun and even more so respect for others, partnership, ethics and positive energy. As a woman who has been covering tech for many years, I find it liberating that the younger generations Justine and Jenna are part of and reach through their audience feel free to claim their space while remaining conscious of the work still to be done to reach equity.