We have written previously about the power of the #MeToo movement—the social media phenomenon that shed light on sexism across industries, including the humanitarian aid sector, and gave women a platform to speak out about sexual abuse. While women are still underrepresented in media generally, social media encourages a more level playing field, allowing for the voices of women from a wider array of backgrounds and countries, with or without traditional power, to be heard.
Indeed, social media has opened a new frontier for women’s rights organizing. For one, it encourages solidarity and emphasizes shared experiences. Moira Donegan, the creator of the controversial “Media Men List,” wrote about how the #MeToo movement revealed a rift in modern-day feminism between an ethos of individualism and self-sufficiency—or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”—and the collective liberation approach represented by the #MeToo movement. Donegan argues that the #MeToo movement brings to light a strain of feminism focused on community and solidarity, which reshapes the feminist project. The movement is premised on the idea that we all share responsibility for eliminating sexism, striving for a world in which no woman has to claim #MeToo.
Women are still underrepresented in traditional media. According to the 2017 Women’s Media Center report, women receive only 38 percent of bylines in print, TV, Internet, and wire news. And only 15 percent of Wikipedia contributors are women. As discussed in a CFR paper one of us published, women are also underrepresented in the technology sector – significant, since social media enlists technology to amplify traditional media.
Social media has the potential to close this gap. In a study at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, researchers found that in countries with large gender inequities in offline life, women were more likely to have significant online presences. In Pakistan, for example, women on average had more followers on Google+ (twenty-five versus sixteen) and Twitter (600 versus 222) than their male counterparts.
In the United States, women are more likely to use social media than men across all major platforms except LinkedIn. But despite this, female Twitter users are significantly less likely to be retweeted than male users. According to Adweek, men are retweeted almost twice as often as women. And women are more likely to be subject to cyber abuse on Twitter, according to Amnesty International. A study on internet usage and women’s political activism in the Middle East and North Africa found that though social media lowers the cost of participating in political protest for all citizens, there remains a gender gap in participation even between men and women who regularly use social media. From online harassment to increased visibility that can lead to targeted repression, there are gendered barriers for women online just as there are in public space.
But unlike women’s rights offline—which often are inhibited by cultural norms as well as legal restrictions, economic barriers, and more—women’s influence online may be easier to equalize. According to the Atlantic, women might be retweeted less than men because women are less likely to use traditional hashtags that increase the reach of their messages. Other easy fixes include increasing the numbers of women working at social media companies and serving on their boards. With more women in these positions, social media can be designed to be more inclusive of women’s voices, including by cracking down on cyber harassment.