The Sisterhood of the Travelling Smartphone

I am scared of the changing room at the gym.

I’m not scared of the actual gym, not the male-dominated weights section, not of screaming olympic lifters or shirtless cross-fitters, but I am TERRIFIED of the ladies changing room. Whenever I go in there I feel like I am getting this whole woman thing wrong. Everyone in there seems to take half an age getting ready both before and after working out. There is so much plucking and primping and moisturising and makeup-applying that, with my 5 minute shower-mascara-hairbrush routine, I wind up feeling like Ugly Betty on her first day of work repeatedly reminding myself that it doesn’t matter that I don’t walk in and out of that building looking like a Victoria Secret model.

me hiding in the corner of the changing room

However, there is one advantage related to my need to make myself as invisible as possible in the midst of all that ‘girl.’ It allows me to be a fly on the wall. From this position of nondescript observer I get the most wonderful insight into the minds of this diverse group of women. Earlier this week I overhead what is perhaps one of favourite conversations ever. It went something like this:

“I wish I had X …”
“yeah I wish I had Y…”
“I guess that everyone always wants something that they don’t have”
“Not necessarily true, I don’t want a penis.”

That final comment really made me laugh but it also made me think about how true that statement was. It may not feel like a great time to be a woman for various social, political or economic reasons at the moment, and I may often feel as though I’m a square peg that society wants to put into a round hole, but I also believe that there has never been a better time to be a mouthy, bossy, nasty woman.

The reason I believe this to be true is, very simply, the existence of what I call Digital Sisterhood.

Whilst the fact that ‘girls talk’ is often mocked in popular culture, multiple studies have shown that female friendships are vitally important. Strong bonds have been linked to better immune systems and lower stress levels as well as numerous other health benefits.

Indeed there are examples of sisterhood going back through the ages. So why do I think that it’s stronger than ever now? This can be explained by the book and film series “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.”

In the series, a group of female friends of all different shapes and sizes find a pair of jeans that magically fit them all. They use the jeans to document their lives and keep them connected when they are spread across the world, sending them to each other for a week at a time and recording anything interesting that happened to them during that time on the jeans themselves. Over the years the jeans record love, death, happiness and deep tragedy and through it all the girls hold each other up. I believe this is a micro example of a much bigger phenomenon that can be observed on social media.

Back in 2012, I wrote my university thesis “Cultural Transmission: Imitation and Diversity” on the impact of digital technology on the spread of cultural ideas. At the time there was a great deal of concern in the media and in the academic community that social media platforms were making it easier for dominant cultures to spread and effectively wipeout less prominent cultures to create a more homogenous society. What I found, using dance as a metaphor, was the opposite. Instead of homogenisation, I concluded, that sites such as YouTube and Facebook, were giving people who previously did not have a voice, a platform to express their opinions and exert influence on the world, resulting in greater heterogenisation. This is especially evident with the use of social media by women to raise awareness of the issues that they face across the world and in different contexts.

Women are greater users of social media than men. Research by Pew Research Centre found that of all Americans using social media platforms, women represented a greater proportion of users for each social network (except for Linkedin but that’s a discussion for a different day).

% of online adults who use Pinterest
% of adults who use Instagram
% of adults who use Facebook

These stats show that women have embraced these tools to shout to the world about the injustices that they face but also to come together and support each other on a range of issues. Think of the success of the women’s marches that took place across the world earlier this year and of today’s Day Without Women as well as all the many forums and communities that exist across the internet to help women spread across the world deal with issues ranging from body confidence to domestic violence. Research conducted by Chayn, Snook and SafeLives for Comic Relief found overwhelming evidence in support of the role of digital tools, and forums, for coping with domestic violence.

So whilst there may not be a pair of jeans that fits and unites every woman around the world to make them feel part of a sisterhood, there are hundreds of platforms leveraging technology to mimic this connection allowing women to share in each other’s lives and form transformative relationships from thousands of miles apart.

Chayn is at the heart of this movement and celebrates its power on a daily basis. This celebration is twofold. On one hand the celebration is reflected when we highlight our work — for example today: founder Hera Hussain is talking at the OECD in Paris about how women are leveraging technological innovation to fight corruption and both Aliya and Dina Ariss are talking about the importance of diversity in tech at Spark Salon and Tech For Good respectively. On the other hand, we celebrate it by being a digital sisterhood ourselves — Chayn is run by more than 300 volunteers spread across the globe. Of these women I have met less than 5% face to face yet all of them feel like my sisters supporting me online in both my personal and professional endeavours and for that I cannot thank them — and all my other amazing female friends dotted acrosss the globe enough.