Feminism, Globalization, and the Digital Voice

Katie Regan, New York University

When the internet emerged in the early 1990s, it was viewed by scholars as an egalitarian platform, where the boundaries that caused division in everyday life would disappear. For the first time in history, people would be able to communicate and collaborate outside of the bounds of race, gender, or class. It was a unique arena where suddenly individuals could develop an identity aside from the societal labels previously placed on them. Many internet scholars held a utopian view of digital technology that optimistically subscribed cyberspace as a platform for liberation. It was believed that “online” would be understood as separate from “ordinary aspects of human experience” (Arvidsson and Foka, 2015). Not everyone shared this view, however. Skeptics believed that it would only serve as another tool of oppression by those already in power. These dystopian critics argued that the internet would merely serve as a “white male playground” and that social norms would only be reinforced in this new medium.

Over the last two decades, both theoretical lenses have been proven to be justifiable. The information age has fostered brand new opportunities to anyone with access to technology. It has proven to be an explosive revolution in communication, unparalleled by any other technological shift in history. It has birthed globalization and connection as well as empowerment and self-advancement. It has reformed concepts of education, entertainment, and human interaction. This magnification of communication brings with it both liberation and affliction. The internet has become an amplifier of cultural norms and inequality at the very same time it has empowered those who have been historically sidelined and victimized. As with any tool utilized by human beings over the course of history, it has been used to effect both positive and negative change. Further, it has enabled these changes to grow broader, faster, and more complex each day.

From a feminist perspective, the emergence of digital media has had profound benefits in the evolutionary fight toward female empowerment. Women now have a voice within the digital panorama, from professional industries to social media and non-profit campaigns. Women are more empowered now than ever, in large part because of those who laid the groundwork long before the internet entered society. Yet the digital medium has played a significant role in contemporary feminists’ ability to build upon the strides of our fore-mothers, at a pace far greater than they were able to ever conceive. Many theorists believe that western civilization has entered a fourth wave of feminism and it is in large part due to the unconstrained podium that is digital media.

While there have been significant breakthroughs toward equality since the internet emerged, in many ways digital media is used as a tool to perpetuate social norms, sexism, and degradation. That such a tool is accessible to nearly everyone makes it a complex and multi-faceted change-agent, one in which women should take advantage of whenever possible. It has enabled marginalization, sexism, and oppression to become more visible and culturally unacceptable, but as of yet, it has not solved the problem entirely. The digital landscape has offered historically marginalized groups a seat at the table, but it has not protected them from the continuation of oppression and inequality once they arrive.

A New Workforce

Digital media became a globalized phenomenon at the turn of the 21st century, and because of this, women were introduced to it at relatively the same time as men. The digital revolution has enabled anyone with a computer or a smartphone to make his or her voice heard. While marginalization, sexism, and heteronormativity remain rampant cultural norms across digital platforms, those who have historically been silenced now have the opportunity to speak for themselves using this platform.

Unlike the communication and journalism industries of the past, wherein women were collocated with male superiors only in the realm of secretarial duties, the modern digital market affords women opportunities like never before. Lynn Povich is a living embodiment of the strides professional women have made throughout the last few decades. In the 1960s, she worked as a national researcher at Newsweek magazine with a group of women known as the Dollies. They handed over all of their research to their male bosses, who then authored all of the articles and received all of the credit. Her career paralleled the depictions of objectification and inequality in the Netflix hit, Mad Men. In the 1970s, the Dollies filed a lawsuit against Newsweek in protest to the disenfranchisement the company smothered its female employees in. Povich went on to become the first female senior editor at Newsweek and helped launch MSNBC.com. She published a book about her experiences at Newsweek entitled, The Good Girls Revolt, which has recently become a television series by Amazon studios. Povich’s story is one that many women relate to, as they gain more and more agency in the digital world.

Digital media has made it easier for women to speak about their ideas and share their skillset than it has been in “real life” decades prior. Sarah Granger, author of The Digital Mystique, How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life — Online and Off, notes in Ms. Magazine, “As women, we’re often chastised for speaking up in-person the way that’s expected of men as a norm. Online, if we show our expertise through a bio or a blog, it’s just there for anyone to find […] we have a platform that can’t be taken away from us.” She offers a valid perspective that many women have come to relate to. It’s often easier to create, innovate, and talk about ideas in the digital platform because the human divisions are less apparent in this setting. As more and more women feel more comfortable speaking their minds and showing their skills online, they are becoming recognized and respected for their work.

Education

Education has played a large role in the amount of women who have entered the workforce over the last few decades, and continues to be a prominent factor in the kinds of careers they obtain. Women are now leading the way in education achievements. Since 2011, they have earned 57% of Bachelor degrees and 51.4% of Doctoral degrees. Even with these progresses, women continue to choose more ‘traditionally female’ majors. They are more likely to major in fields like English, Communication, and Education, and less likely to pursue male-dominated fields like Science and Engineering. In fact, scientists at Yale note pervasive sexism toward women who pursue scientific fields and they are often viewed as less competent than male students.

Scholars and non-profits have also been able to bring feminist history and humanities studies to the digital scene, bringing the education of women’s history to the forefront via digital technology. Projects such as the Emily Dickinson Archive and the Women Writers Project have made achievements of women writers accessible to the public and allowed their voices to continue to be heard. The Digital Humanities is a growing field and is a necessary component of gender equality in digital media.

For women and girls around the world who have not received the education that is available in more privileged countries, digital media offers a way for those who have access to both education and technology to provide support and resources to them. Digital platforms, especially social media, have enabled campaigns to educate women and girls and to spread awareness on a global scale. Initiatives such as Girl Rising, an independent film and social media campaign dedicated to providing girls in marginalized countries access to education, have been able to reach global awareness because of social media.

The combination of women’s education and the emergence of new technological and digital tools has created a positive cycle wherein women are able to advance and empower themselves, and in turn, develop new resources to support and empower women who do not have the same levels of access in their communities.

Industry

In order to analyze the overall progress women have made professionally since the birth of digital media, it is important to evaluate what and who drives the industry and where gender gaps still persist. Women continue to struggle to establish a foothold in traditional male dominated fields such as Business, Engineering and Computer Science. For those women who do earn degrees in male-dominated areas, they are leaving them at high rates primarily because of sexism and gender gaps.

Technology, Computer Science, and Engineering

Women who work in the technology industry face a great deal of scrutiny and bias. They are often overlooked for promotions and undervalued for their work. They face criticism if they come across as too aggressive or assertive. They are paid less than the men who do the same exact jobs. The gender disparity in tech industries is twofold; there is a male dominance because there are simply not enough women vying for Science, Technology, Economics, or Math (STEM) career paths, and the reason for that is primarily because dominant cultural norms tell them they can’t. Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and writer on gender issues in the tech industry, notes: “These Silicon Valley guys are making the world we live in — and they are making it in a particular kind of image” (Parkinson, 2014). The more men who dominate the technology that permeates everyday life, the less women will have a say in how it gets created and consumed. It is a cyclical pattern that continues to enforce detrimental gender roles.

There are, however, women who have recently paved the way for others to achieve higher standards. The most prominent example is Sheryl Sandberg. The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, the largest social network platform in the world, Sandberg is arguably the most successful woman in digital media. Her net worth is $1.27 billion and Forbes magazine has named her the 7th most Powerful Woman in the world. In addition to her self-made success, she has become an outspoken advocate for women in business. She published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a manifesto for equality and empowerment in the workplace. She also founded LeanIn.org as a digital expansion of the book and a resource for women to learn how to advance themselves and one another in the workplace. She recently announced she will donate $100 million to charities in an effort to promote women to Lean In. Her vigilance in ensuring that more women reach their own potential and demand a seat at the table is inspiring and is symbolic of the progress women in the tech industries have made. Sandberg is an important figure for younger generations to look up to and to know that they are capable of success, even in fields that they have historically been shut out of.

Tiffani Bell is a computer science major, coder, and founder and CEO of The Detroit Water Project, a website where donors all around the world can help pay the water bills for families in need in Detroit, Michigan. Tiffani also happens to be a young, black, female; three characteristics that limit her in a heteronormative patriarchal society. She describes being an intern at Hewlett-Packard and meeting only a single other black woman, the first black woman she had ever met in the industry (James, 2016). Despite having limited role models in the tech industry who looked like she did, she didn’t let it stop her or make her question whether she could do it. She has raised $230,000 in payments for families in need through her website, proving that women are more than capable of working and succeeding in STEM fields.

Op-Eds and Blogs

Within the blogging industry, there has been a positive trend in women writing and publishing blogs and opinion pieces. The amount of women writers who publish Op-Eds has increased over the last decade. The OpEd Project notes a 40 percent increase in female representation from six years ago. Despite the uptick in female Op-Ed writers, gender gaps continue to persist across the kinds of Op-Eds being written. The common trend in women’s opinion pieces are based on health, women’s issues, family, food, and style, whereas men tend to write about religion and philosophy, national politics and security, and economics.

An interesting trend, however, is that women are much more likely to have a personal blog and to create social media profiles. Studies show that women aren’t just more likely to buy things on the internet, they are more likely to be on the internet in the first place (Garber, 2012). They are more likely to write blogs and update their Facebook and Twitter statuses, an upward trend in establishing online personas and making their voices heard in the digital landscape. The fact that more women are writing blogs and Op-Eds means that they are utilizing digital tools to express their perspectives. This type of digital medium in particular enables freedom of expression and independent thinking more than those that are professionally-driven, and reveal a positive trend in women’s representation online.

News Media

Despite growing numbers of social media and blogging presence, women lag behind in news media, both behind and in front of the camera. The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) found that only 26 percent of people in internet news stories and media news tweets are women (GMMP, 2015). Dr. Sarah Macharia, GMMP Global Coordinator, asserts, “The GMMP 2015 report examined the visibility, voice and mention of women and men in the news media and finds a sexism that has endured across decades and geographical boundaries, adapting to emerging media forms and thriving in all spaces in which news content is produced and shared.” The news media industry at large is not representative of women’s stories and experiences. It appears that men continue to be taken more seriously than women are with regard to ‘hard news,’ despite a high number of women who study journalism and communication.

The Women’s Media Center found that in 2015, men wrote 58 percent of content at four online news sites, while women wrote 42 percent of the content. Men continue to dominate in online reporting on war, politics, and other traditional hard news topics. A limited visibility of women in digital news media contributes to a lack of objective representation and agency in society as a whole. The media plays a significant role in how women are depicted and valued. The mainstream news media is another major facet of modern information dissemination that women must be equally a part of if gender equality will ever be achieved.

One mainstream news medium that has sprung up to national acclaim and won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting stands out against the norm. Ariana Huffington is the founder and CEO of The Huffington Post, an online news magazine that is aims for inclusiveness and neutrality. The primary sections of the magazine are News, Politics, Entertainment, and Wellness. Huffington has not always represented the voice of contemporary feminists, and for many, she still does not, despite her successes in the industry. But her success and purposeful inclusion of women’s issues at the forefront of national news, makes her noteworthy at the very least. The Huffington Post is a chief example of a woman-run medium that offers the female perspective in a male-dominate industry.

Income

Even though women have established themselves in the workforce and achieved agency within historically marginalized industries, it seems that no amount of experience or education helps them to attain the same levels of compensation as men with the same jobs. Despite the fact that women currently earn the majority of college degrees, the wage gap still persists. The Center for American Progress found that over a 40- year period, women with a high school degree will earn, on average, $392,000 less than their male counterparts, while women with a bachelor’s degree or higher will earn $713,000 less than their male counterparts. Women make up 57.2 percent of workers in professional and related occupations, yet they earn 26 percent less than their male counterparts.

On a positive and somewhat paradoxical note, women now have an unconstrained ability to raise awareness about gender inequities through digital media. Over the past few years, women have used Twitter to spur movements toward closing the the gaps in workforce participation and pay, with hashtags such as #EqualPay and #NoCeilings. The digital platform has enabled ideas, protests, and movements to spread to global communities in a matter of minutes. It has provided an avenue for women to come together in support of a common cause and serves as a microphone for the collective voice to demand change. Celebrities and cultural icons have become positive role models for young women by encouraging them to stand up to sexism and inequality. For example, Jennifer Lawrence recently opened up about her experiences with the gender gap in Lena Dunham’s online newsletter, Lenny Letter

“I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ … Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.”

So far, the emergence of digital media and women’s occupational position within it has not been sufficient to create equal pay for equal work. It has, however, enabled the voices of those who are getting paid less to be heard. Income disparages continue to plague working women, but women have utilized digital media to come together to fight against the discrimination, proving themselves to be equally deserving of the compensation and recognition of their hard work. The ability to join together on a global scale in order to achieve a common problem is one of the paramount successes of the fourth wave of feminism.

Social Media and Participatory Culture

In addition to gender gaps in professional digital industries, there remains stringent gendered differences across social media platforms. While women have made significant strides in media representation and expounding the feminist perspective, sexism and discrimination remain rampant issues that women continue to combat using a collective voice. Social media has essentially become a divided platform, wherein one side perpetuates gender norms while the other fights against it.

Facebook and Twitter

The explosion of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has enabled feminists to collaborate and mobilize in ways never before possible. With the newfound liberation through digital expression comes an equal amount of vilification and opposition. Just as feminist ideology and the upturn of empowerment has been able to spread across the digital terrain, heteronormative agendas have combatted them just as quickly and easily. In the same blogs and forums feminists are using to speak out against sexism, they are bombarded with hateful and harmful rhetoric in return. Combatting the demonization of feminism in the digital sphere is often a complex and daunting task, one that is both empowering and overwhelming for this generation of feminists.

Facebook continues to try to combat hateful rhetoric and harmful photos and videos, but have not yet been able to completely eliminate it. Attempting to find the balance between allowing free speech and prohibiting offensive language is an issue that continues to pervade the company. There is a heavy reliance on self-reporting when something vilifying or denigrating appears, but many cases end up falling through the cracks. Though, Facebook offers an avenue for activists and like-minded groups to collaborate and organize on a global scale, which is an important aspect of initiating change. Organizations are able to reach millions of people and communicate directly with their followers, enabling more people to become involved and raise their voices against issues like inequality.

Because platforms like Facebook and Twitter are so massive and far-reaching, it is unrealistic to believe that complete parity among users will ever be achieved. To a certain extent, that is not the responsibility of the industry leaders and tech tycoons who develop these tools of communication. The responsibility lies in the users to respect one another and communicate in ways that unify rather than divide us. There are plenty of examples of users who differ in opinion but are still able to effectively communicate.

Here is an example of a personal experience I had with a male Twitter user a few years ago:

As a feminist, I was using a digital medium to condemn CodeBabes, a company who uses the objectification of women to promote their online tutorials in coding and programming. The CodeBabes website is a prime example of the ways digital media has perpetuated gendered stereotypes rather than eliminating them. Sadly, a large portion of digital media continues to place men in positions of power, while women, often only parts of their bodies, are used as promotional products.

Even as I attempted to convey this, the Twitter user evidently felt that my tweet was a direct attack on men, rather than the company itself. Thankfully, this conversation was not a vitriolic one, but an opportunity for me to express my perspective to someone who obviously did not share the same experiences. His responses were naïvely presumptive in that developing a site where women could learn to code while viewing half-naked men would be sufficient in solving the problem. Unfortunately, my single retweet was not enough to spark a change in the way that CodeBabes advertises their services, but my exchange with a complete stranger exemplifies the ways in which social media can foster conversations and contentions about the status quo.

My main contention with companies like CodeBabes is that they promote sexist rhetoric rather than prevent it. Women are facing harmful, often violent harassment online and there are not enough preventative actions taking place. Cyber misogyny permeates all aspects of digital media. For instance, Feminist writer Amanda Hess, who reports on gender, sex, and online culture, has been berated, harassed, and threated for the work she does. In her article Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, she talks about her experiences with violent misogyny in response to her work. One man on Twitter sent her 7 Tweets while she was on vacation, including “Happy to see we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head” and “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you.” Hess writes, “None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection.” She is not the only one who has experienced such violence and hatred simply because she is a woman freely expressing herself. Between 2000 and 2012, 3,787 people reported incidents of online harassment to Working to Halt Online Abuse, and 72.5% were female (Hess, 2014). Women experience death threats, sexual harassment, and instances of stalking at rates far greater than men do. Evidence shows that issues of male dominance and the silencing of women is just as prevalent online as it is in real life.

Hashtag Feminism

In response to the degradation and toxic misogynistic trends across social media, feminists have developed online platforms to stand against injustices. Despite all of the harmful rhetoric, women are still able to use digital media as a tool to fight oppression. The digital landscape may be far from unified, but it is true that we are living in the #FEMFUTURE. No other platform for activism has empowered an individual to prompt tens or thousands to take action on a singular issue within minutes as social media has.

Twitter hashtags have become a simple yet effective way for grassroots organizations to assert their positions within digital discourse. Hashtag feminism (#F) began in 2013 as a means to track online feminist discourse and movements that were spurred by hashtags. The Hashtag Feminism website is no longer active, but Dr. Tara Conley, an Ethnographer and Professor at New York University, maintains an online archive of the hashtags and the background stories of each, such as the ones shown below.

#BringBackOurGirls was created after the abduction of 276 Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram in 2014.

#RememberRenisha was created in 2013 in response to the murder of an unarmed black woman, Renisha McBride, by a homeowner in Detroit, Michigan.

#RapeCultureIsWhen began in 2014 as a medium for rape victims to share their experiences of victim blaming and online bullying.

Instagram, YouTube, and Visual Media

In addition to abusive language, women are subject to images, gifs, and memes that sexually exploit them. These images are spread across sites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, victimizing women and creating a toxic culture of cyber bullying. Revenge Porn, the “distribution of non-consensual photography” remains a rampant problem, victimizing over 100 female celebrities last year alone (Chemaly, 2014). Twitter has taken an overt stand against Revenge Porn, adding a guideline to their policy that states, “You may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent” (Bahadur, 2015). But across other social media platforms, the unrelenting harassment and humiliation of women online continues to pervade the digital sphere and perpetuate male dominance. Broadly speaking, there seems to be a cultural divide among social media users; those who seek to create unity and equality and those who reinforce heteronormative ideals in a space that represents a threat to their positions of power.

For example, Mia Matsumiya is a violinist and feminist icon on Instagram. Her profile, entitled perv_magnet, is a compilation of sexist and violating messages she has received from men online. She has archived every misogynistic and sadistic message sent to her over the last decade, ingeniously bringing awareness to the dark side of social media. Women are constantly berated in their inboxes by strangers who want to use and abuse them, and who feel no shame by doing so behind the safety of their computers. Matsumiya now has over 14,000 Twitter followers and 63,000 Instagram followers. She is able to use the medium against its abusers, raising awareness of the toxic and abusive language to a mass audience.

Similarly, women have utilized YouTube to combat the prevalence of online misogyny. For example, Feminist Frequency is a YouTube channel created by Anita Sarkeesian which features video commentaries on gender, sexism, and pop culture. One of the prominent topics she discusses is women’s portrayal in video games, from a lack of body diversity, the male gaze, and sexualized depictions of the female body. Sexism is a serious problem on YouTube, and female content creators are constantly subject to scrutiny and harassment. To begin with, there are more male content creators than there are female, leading to a disparity of female voices across the platform. The women who do create and publish videos are subjected to sexual abuse and discrimination. In 2014, a group of female video game fans decided to protest the harassment and “abuses of power by men in the YouTube space,” launching YouCoalition, now known as UPLIFT. The website seeks to “combat sexual abuse in online communities” and promote user safety within digital spaces like YouTube. More and more women are using the digital landscape to turn objectification on its head and using the ‘Master’s tools against him.’ It is empowering that women are able to combat inequality with visual and verbal expression, rather than being silenced in male-dominated mediums.

The social media landscape has revealed itself to be complex and has become representative of culture as a whole. While feminism may have reached a fourth wave with the existence of technology, it is far from achieving true equality. Yet, most significantly, it has given women around the world a platform from which to speak and to be heard, however they choose to use it.

Conclusion

Since the introduction of the internet to the public two decades ago, there have been significant positive and negative impacts on culture. A fourth wave of feminism has sprung from the technological and globalized platform. It has allowed women to better understand the condition of those in less fortunate countries and to develop innovative means of activism that are more widespread and inclusive than ever before. The utopian view that internet scholars held during the emergence of the world wide web has been proven to be accurate in some ways; anyone with access to the internet has the same ability to express themselves, no matter their race, class, or gender. We are all active participants in a shared, collaborative space, and it has brought enormous opportunities to American culture and the world has a whole.

But with great opportunity comes great responsibility. As active participants in this new cultural sphere, we bear the responsibility to make the world a better place. Digital media does not always accomplish this. Often, it is a place for discrimination, malice, and hate to breed. Bullying and harassment are not immune in this space and the unfortunate reality is that digital media is not a communicative utopia. Digital media is a tool, one that is tremendously effective in driving agendas, both good and bad. The ability for anyone with access to a smartphone or computer to have their voice heard, potentially on a global scale, is a truly remarkable phenomenon that should not be underestimated. It is a powerful apparatus for communication, connection, innovation, globalization, and organization. We have the ability to use it as a platform for change and make progress in our cultural perceptions.

From a gendered perspective, there is a lot of work to be done before equality can be achieved in the digital landscape. Women continue to face the same kinds of gender gaps in digital and tech industries as they have before. They continue to be represented as sexual objects and products for promotion. They still struggle to make their voice heard and to not be silenced. The internet did not solve the gendered problem, it is merely reflective of what we accept and perpetuate in every day culture. Yet with a new wave of feminism, combined with advancements in technology, we have nowhere to go but up. Women have reached a point of momentum that cannot be stopped. Many will try to prevent progress, tolerance, and gender equality. It became clear in this year’s election that feminism is not over and our job is not finished. A man who has sexually assaulted, verbally abused, and overtly objectified women has been elected to the highest office in the world, and has masterfully used digital media as a means of getting himself there. He shouted down his opponent, the first female nominee of a major political party, criticized female journalists and reporters, and did his best to silence the collective feminist voice. But he has not won, because he has not silenced women. Women must continue to use digital media as a platform to express their needs and desires, as equal participants in society. Women must not back down in this age of communicative opportunity.

The research reveals a mixture of achievements and setbacks. The gendered perspective within such a complex, globalized arena is difficult to breakdown because there is an expansive amount of data. It cannot be generalized as a singular issue that has improved or become worse. Issues of intersectionality persist; disparages among white wealthy women and women of color from poorer backgrounds simply have not arrived at the same point on the feminist spectrum. What has been documented as a clear positive trend is the ability for women to use digital media as a means of advancement, expression, and unity in ways their mothers and grandmothers never were. It is a tool that women can now use to further break down barriers and make their voices heard.

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