Ever since I published my blog on inspiring girls to enter the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, my inbox has exploded with friends sending me articles on gender (in)equality. From Soraya Chemaly’s piece on the importance of the Slutwalk in promoting discussion about gender bias with our children to the national security implications of failing to interest girls in the STEM disciplines by Anna Holmes, the Internet is abuzz with articles on the subject of gender bias and inequality. And there is good reason for this – gender equality is not just a nice humanistic principle for society to pursue. As the facts show, gender equality is critical to global progress, economic stability and even global security. “Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalized world is not only wrong, but also economically harmful,” according to a recent World Bank report. Underscoring this point, the citation accompanying the Nobel Peace prize awarded last week to three women (2 Liberians and 1 Yemeni) for their non-violent work in promoting peace, equality and democracy said “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Could the Internet, the vaunted technological achievement of our era, also be the medium by which women equalize their role in society? According to every study I have read lately, women significantly outpace men in the use of social media, not just in the US, but around the world. And there may be a very interesting reason behind this phenomenon: “In the corporate boardroom, you might get hushed and shushed, but you can say what you want on twitter,” according to The Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry.
I went to an all-girls high school in Los Angeles, California (Westlake School for Girls, now no longer the single-sex Harvard-Westlake School). It was at Westlake that I found my voice, without the pressure of boys in the classroom. It never occurred to me that I should not raise my hand or voice my opinion in almost any situation (just ask my partners … or my parents, both equally frustrated with me at times). I carried the confidence I gained at Westlake to college and law school, where, much to the dismay of friends and even professors whose advice I chose to ignore, I refused to self-silence. In a tough but nurturing environment with few repercussions, I learned to be confident and outspoken. We didn’t have the Internet then – but we do now, and perhaps the Internet, and specifically social media, can play the same role for girls and women that Westlake did for me in my adolescence.
The Internet could be the very medium for enabling new generations of girls and women to find their voice on issues from politics and policy to art, education and economics.
More important than simply an outlet for their opinion, social media could be a critical medium for reform and for gender equality. We are all aware of the impact of social media on the Iranian protests following the corrupt elections of 2009, or the Arab Spring of 2011. There are plenty of compelling examples of how it has impacted women’s ability to shape and change political and economic rights. Women can document their abuses as a young woman did describing her ordeal in Iranian prison during the 2009 protests, they can urge reform as Saudi women helped do through the Women2Driver Twitter and Facebook campaign.
Social media is a particularly powerful tool because it can be viral at little cost, create international efforts and movements without requiring travel, allow for instant communities around issues – whether social issues such as the right to vote, or economic progress with networking communities – and reach unprecedented audiences that might otherwise be ignored on the global stage. In less than one year, Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign spurred over 25,000 video testimonials to help stave off the rash of suicides in the LGBT community, earned broad mainstream media coverage and injected a new, hopeful voice on an issue that had largely been ignored.
Of course social media cannot promise complete anonymity, and discovery can often have gruesome consequences. This was the case in Mexico recently when a woman was decapitated purportedly for sharing drug cartel activity information on a social networking site. Bravery in the face of oppression still carries risk despite the new, global rewards offered by social media.
But the benefit of inspiring an instant movement that aims to right obvious wrongs is too powerful to ignore and in this way social media is a blessing. As the 99 Percent movement that started Occupy Wall Street has morphed into “Occupy Together,” an online community with a website that will serve as the unofficial hub of activity in hopes of inspiring a nationwide protest (endorsed by Anonymous, of course), it is clear that social media has grown up beyond a useful tool for college students to connect. And with women dominating social media sites, it is poised to play a critical role for promoting and achieving gender equality – which itself helps eliminate poverty, illiteracy and the human abuse that thrive in the dark, lonely void of ignorance.