Women’s Voices in Social Media: Challenges, opportunities and legislation.

I recently spoke at a Conference on Women’s Voices in Social Media, hosted by KWIC and the Canadian Federation for University Women at Trent University in Peterborough. It was a lively and important discussion, and I was able to sit on a panel with brilliant speakers who touched on many aspects of the challenges and opportunities for women online and the policy reform and state role in criminalizing certain behaviours.

Below is part of my speech and more after the break. Saturday is International Women’s Day – and in an era where our digital connectivity has become synonymous with our ‘real world’ selves, women must be empower to be active participants and creators of information and not simply passive consumers.




“Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight, I’m happy to be up here, speaking on a topic that is very much in the spotlight today.

As was said, I spend some time writing for online blogs on social justice issues, usually around women’s rights. Social media for me, has been a megaphone to my thoughts, giving me a louder voice and an audience. It has lead to wider discussions and greatly helped to increase visibility on an issue, to be part of an active community, to communicate realities that might otherwise remain unknown.

Let’s take it back a little – only a few years in fact – to when social media was really beginning to emerge as the force that we know it to be today. There was an initial thought that women and other historically disadvantaged groups would be able to reclaim their voices and challenge prevailing stereotypes in this new medium. What happened, however, was that just as women gained space online, social media presented numerous challenges to this reclaiming of space. Indeed, online harassment, cyberviolence and the sheer speed at which media travels over these social networks creates a complex web of pressures and obstacles on women expressing themselves and developing their independent identities. This, of course, is especially true for young girls – as bullying has a greater impact with the ubiquitous nature of social media.

Professor Jane Bailey, behind the EGirls project from the University of Ottawa recently published some of her findings on what girls and young women think of social media – and the results are fascinating.

She discovered two key things that are most pertinent to our conversation today:

1. The first is that girls and young women now view their online world and their real world as having no clear boundaries: their digital connectivity is of primary importance to their social ‘real world’ lives – They shop online, date online, find their entertainment online and create an online identity that strongly shapes who they are, their value and self confidence in their ‘real world lives.

2. Girls are, now more than ever, being faced with the reproduction of real life gender challenges in this online realm

a.Media barrages of white, thin, heterosexual representation of beauty are prevalent along with the noted absence of other representations of beauty.

b.Sexuality is also very much at the forefront of girl’s minds: images of women online are highly sexualized for the male gaze, from Facebook ads to the wide variety of pornography, but girls speak of it as always walking a tightrope between being sexy enough, but not too much. Am I pretty? Or a slut?

These are issues that boys/men generally do not have to confront in the online realm – or in our ‘real world’ either – but they are observers and participate in deciding the value of these girls and women. They have a role in rebalancing this online gender inequality, and I’ll come to that a little later.

So we have these two heavy challenges of pervasive beauty standards and sexuality – and we can add a third: online harassment. This has a particularly vitriolic gendered dimension. Women are often immediately reduced to their bodies and sexual behavior in online commentary/forums, their opinions are seen as suspicious and outside of the norm simply because they are women, and one has only to look at the media portrayal of political women to know that the media seems to general hate women. Am I right? In January 2014, Times magazine published a front cover of a giant women’s high heel stepping on a tiny man with the title: “Can anyone stop Hilary?” I mean, come on, these are antiquated stereotypes being recycled to push the same outdated message: women aren’t welcome here. Unless, of course, it’s in a highly recognizable, sexualized and compartmentalized way.

Finally, the last gendered challenge that I’d like to touch upon, that online content presents, is the unequal gendered distribution of information online. Think for a moment: who writes the articles in the online media outlets? Who creates the websites? Who spreads the information? Who makes sure you see what you are seeing when you open your browser? All this can really come to a head on Wikipedia. Wikipedia has become our global source of information – it is the largest encyclopedia in history with over 24 million articles in over 275 languages. But only about 16% of the editors on Wikipedia are women, and they make only about 9% of all the edits to those 24 million articles. Just a note on how the site works: Wikipedia is run on a voluntary basis, so if I want to write an article on my favorite author, I can do so, and other people can come along and fact check, contest and add to or take away from my article. So if the first place you go for your information is Wikipedia – then what does it mean if half of the world’s population is not at all contributing or having their voices written into this vast source of information? And what does it also mean if the voice that is being heard, is the one that are already in power?

So we have numerous challenges in the online world. However, women and girls have created a massive online presence: they are the most users of such sites as Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest and even outweigh men in the online gaming community. They are however, divided into active creators of information and passive consumers of information.

So what are some of the advantages of the growth of social media for women?

The biggest is the rebirth of feminism into a recognized social justice movement that has taken hold of women, young and old, across the globe. Never before has there been such global community around women’s issues, women’s rights, and the different realities of women’s experiences. Women are able to come together over common interests, but they are also able to challenge each other in a forum unlike any other.

We’ve seen prominent discussions online about and by women of color and their differing histories and experiences, and the issue of intersectionality, where race and culture and sexuality crosscut with gender roles and feminism.

We’ve seen a feminist Arab Spring – where Muslim women contest the traditional Western views of their so-called victimization and the issues of choice.

We’ve seen sexuality be redefined by women who are owning their sexuality outside of the male gaze, contesting the highly sexualized images online. The LGBTQ community has been able to present different portrayals of what love looks like and of what relationships look like.

Social media is also a bit of a leveler. If it allows for a lot of lies and misconceptions, it certainly holds people accountable as well. Recently, at the Oscars last Sunday, the hashtag #AskHerMore exploded onto Twitter, as people took to social media to demand that female celebrities be asked about more than their dresses and dieting practices on the red carpet. Recently, the big retail lingerie store Victoria Secret was shamed on social media sites when news broke that it has kicked a breastfeeding mother out of its store, lest we forget what breasts are really for. Remember Susan G. Komen defunding Planned Parenthood? The outcry on social media was so large that the funding was reinstated 4 days later and senior executives forced to resign.

And if anyone was watching the news over the past two years, we can thank social media for the ‘War on Women.’ Well, actually, we can thank Republicans, but social media became an outlet for women of all ages to be more heavily invested and mobilized in politics.

Social media has highlighted the most important issues for women: abortion, women’s healthcare, equal rights – because women understand and live firsthand the reality that these issues are intrinsic to others, like having and keeping a job or the state of the economy. So if I’m a mother with two kids and a full time job, I may not have time to know every piece of daily news or participate as others could in social media, but this same social media allows me to have a grasp on issues relevant to my life as a woman and as an active member of society.

So how can we protect this real and growing female presence online while also taking into account the challenges and violence that women also face in the same arena?

In this area – I see two main actors: the state through policy reform and young boys/men.

The state necessarily has a tricky role to play, and it must move quickly as it usually plays catch-up. It cannot remain silent in the face of so many online crimes: schools, families and communities are battling online harassment, bullying and social media in the distribution of revenge porn or sexual images. This harassment could be seen as a human rights issue, and criminalizing this behavior would set legal boundaries. Indeed, in June 2013, the Canadian Department of Justice released its report on Cyberbullying and the Non-consensual Distribution of Intimate images in which it recommended modernizing the criminal code to address these new manifestations of violence.

Often, laws enacted to protect a particular ‘minority’ group can do just the opposite – when we begin from the notion that the group is vulnerable and victimized. International laws on sex trafficking, for example, have been seen to restrict women’s migration, her job and education prospects as well as her financial empowerment. The recent Quebec Charter on Values purports to emancipate women from misogyny, but may, in fact, be discriminating against a particular group of women and restricting their movement and political and economic participation.

This holds true for laws around online presence: we want to make sure that the presence is protected, but that traditionally moral views of women, sexuality and bodies are not used to criminalize a consenting woman’s behavior.

Finally, men and boys also play a big role. It’s harmful, I think, to speak about gender issues and women’s rights without including men in the discussion. Just like Wikipedia, we don’t want to be leaving half of the world’s voices out of such an important cause. At the basis, if we ask that women’s bodies and voices and presence be respected, we have to empower women but also empower men and boys to understand that respect. If we educate our young people on diversity, on gender stereotypes and the negative impact they have on gender relations, we can hope that as they grow, they will carry forth a different set of values into their social and online interactions. Just as women are redefining their identities within social constructs, we can educate men and boys on redefining masculinities and the stereotypes that are harmful to them, helping them, in turn, act to prevent violence against women.

The importance and value of social media is going to keep evolving, and indeed, might change completely as governments attempt to harness information and legislate content. It is a behemoth: an intrinsic and growing part of our lives – giving us information, access and communication. We cannot allow for women’s voices and presence to be threatened in this forum. We all have a role to play, from citizens to state level in ensuring that women can be active participants in social media and not simply passive, and often disadvantaged, consumers.

Thank you.”

Copyright Clara Vaz 2014

All work is my own.

Sources include: The Canadian Justice Department, Freakonomics podcasts “Women are Not Men,”The eGirls Project“, The McGill Law Journal, Time Magazine, Susan G. Komen website.


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