Rosie Parkyn explores the opportunities and challenges online media presents in addressing the gender equality gap.
‘If you see it, you can be it’ could have been the unofficial slogan of the International Development Cooperation meeting on Gender and Media, where I was invited to talk about the opportunities created by the internet and online media to counter gender stereotyping, or the assignment of particular characteristics and roles according to sex. This is a theme touched on by our Policy Briefing, Making Waves: Media’s Potential for Girls in the Global South.
Much has been said about the need to achieve better visibility for girls and women in the media if gender equality is to be realised. This year’s Global Media Monitoring Project reported that women make up only 24% of people heard, read about or seen in news reporting. That coverage is often characterised by gender bias and extensive stereotyping.
So could the onward expansion of digital spaces fast track the process of ensuring girls and women are seen in a diversity of roles? The short answer is yes of course, it has transformative potential. But there are significant caveats.
The internet enables those who are geographically or socially distant from one another and who have limited power working alone to connect and take action on the issues which matter to them. One example is SPARK, a girl-fuelled, online activist movement which brings campaigners from as far afield as Indonesia, Georgia, Jamaica and the US together to demand an end to the sexualisation of girls in the mainstream media.
In addition, the internet makes it possible for people to create and distribute their own content, allowing them to represent themselves as they wish and tell their own stories. The Real Women of Syria digital storytelling project enables women in the country to counter the victim narrative and report the active role they played in the revolution, while the Transgender Day of Visibility sees members of transgender and non-binary communities flood the internet with images and reflections of their choosing.
It can also provide inspiration and raise aspiration. A Mighty Girl shares stories and educational material about a wide range of people who demonstrate or support female empowerment.
Finally, it can enable people to start conversations which the mainstream media isn’t having, participate in a discussion they might otherwise be excluded from or apply their own frame to a debate. The internet can break down barriers and hierarchies which exist in the real world. Some of the best known voices on social media enjoy influence because of what they have to say not who they are.
This month’s 100 Women – a BBC season featuring inspirational stories about girls and women leading positive change around the world – was a great example of how a long-established media outlet can use digital platforms to engage audiences across the world in a truly global conversation about the position of women and girls in 2015.
100 Women culminated in a ‘takeover’ event on December 1st where a day of discussion on leadership, image and societal expectation took place across the BBC World Service, with 150 franchise debates run by partners around the globe.
BBC Media Action took part in six countries. In Nepal, an audience of 100 women from different social and religious groups came together to talk with Nepal’s first female president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari. A school girl stood up with the country watching and asked how she could become prime minister. In Tanzania, an all-female production team ran four programmes, debating the importance of having women in politics and how society views female politicians.
None of this would have been possible without technology: The franchise debates fed their clips, images and highlight quotes through Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to be shared to a live feed on BBC News. The #100Women hashtag enabled anyone with access to connect around the event and have their say. At one point, a data map was produced showing where the most lively discussion was happening – Nepal, Nigeria and Uganda glowed brightly.
The BBC’s trusted ‘public broadcasting’ brand was key to mobilising such high levels of participation, reaching millions with alternative gender narratives.
Despite this positive example of the potential of online media for women, we need to acknowledge the flipside. Conversation on gender often take place within an echo chamber. Intentionally or otherwise, online users can easily bypass perspectives which don’t cohere with their existing beliefs and attitudes.
In addition, online media can – and does – amplify and reinforce harmful stereotypes and behaviours that exist in the real world. It’s less clear who we can hold to account for this. Who takes editorial responsibility in this largely unmoderated and unfiltered arena? The anonymity which allows vulnerable groups to connect in safe spaces also allows aggressive tendencies to flourish. The values of fairness and decency upheld by public service broadcasters are not always present in the way that people interact with one another online.
Access is also a significant issue. Intel’s Women and the Web reports that women in sub-Saharan Africa are almost 45% less likely to have access to the Internet than their male counterparts. This will likely compound existing inequalities. Men also dominate the tech world to an even greater extent than traditional media.
So, we need to celebrate the internet’s enormous potential whilst recognising that it can also create another layer of disadvantage. Supporting public service broadcasting as one of many means of countering gender stereotyping is as important as ever. Our collective eye needs to remain on that ball.
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Photograph of School girls gathering around a computer by Tom Perry / World Bank
Photograph of a young lady who stands up to speak during a debate show courtesy of BBC Media Action