The 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women held in New York brought together governments from around the world to discuss gender equality and agree on an action plan for the coming year. The focus of the session this year was Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work. In recent decades, numerous innovations including more powerful computers, mobile phones and alternative energies have been introduced in homes and workplaces changing the way we live, how we work and what we are able to do. We live in truly amazing times however not every woman enjoys the right to decent work and build sustainable lives. Enabling women to make the powerful contribution they are capable of is essential if we are to build the world we all aspire to, where prosperity is equitably shared and no one is left behind.
UN Women NC UK joined this year’s CSW to give its support to women’s economic empowerment in the world of work and hosted a panel discussion - Navigating New Media: Gender Friend or Gender Foe? We were delighted to have Beth Balsam, CEO and President of Hill+Knowlton Strategies US; the Rt Hon. Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top; and Eleanor Bruce from the Young Women’s Alliance in the UK on our panel.
The event offered a unique opportunity for policy makers, government representatives, private and public representatives, academia and civil society to come together and share their ideas and experiences. There was a general consensus that social media has transformed the way we talk and find out about important issues. Beth shared with us insight into who uses social media; women use social media more and in better ways than men. 43% of women compared to 37% of men use one or more social media accounts for their social entrepreneurship. Baroness Armstrong shared with us her experience in the developing world where mobile technology has brought about more efficient and safer cashless pay systems and access to economic market information and activity.
On Facebook alone, there are 1 billion active users and 5 billion pieces of content shared daily, a massive amount of traffic by anyone’s standards. Sadly, set against the opportunities social media offers, it has also become a platform for online harassment and misogynistic commentary. The level of online violence against women and girls which often takes an emotional and mental toll should not be acceptable. Beth explained that “the same online space that can breed harassment, can also rally a community to combat it”. It can cement relationships with like-minded people and create support networks. The solution lies not just with governments and companies, society also must step up to help create a more accountable system where online harassment, bullying and misogynistic commentary is not acceptable. Social media companies are facing difficult challenges, and there aren’t always easy answers, but there is more progress that needs to be made.
Freedom of speech must be valued but the line between acceptable and not acceptable behaviour has to be recognised in order to challenge and remove the unwanted threatening behaviours. Eleanor flagged how social online platforms allow for anonymity unlike other social interactions. The panel felt that not allowing anonymous postings could indeed be part of the solution to remove many of the unwanted threatening behaviours, but was not without its difficulties. Eleanor shared with us other solutions including regulation versus strengthening current reporting, closer monitoring of influential accounts, and the use of algorithms to better identify users engaging in inappropriate behaviour.
Are women better off than they were 20 years ago? The panel concluded that this depends on your personal circumstances, experiences and even location. For many women social media and technology has opened up various opportunities and with more education, training and mentoring the opportunities will continue to grow. Baroness Armstrong reminded us, however, that we need to remember that for women living in challenging communities, particularly in countries where conflict is rife, their needs and priorities will be different.
Overall, social media and technology are a force for good in our personal and business lives. Technology will change and develop but has become very much part of the fabric of the world in which we live. Despite differing opinions and perspectives offered by the panellists one thing is for sure – new media plays a powerful role in biases, perceptions and storytelling. Social media offers tremendous potential and opportunity, but we all share the responsibility of being a part of creating a solution and system that does not promote negativity. When history books are written, we will find we are probably just at the start of the social media technology chapter.
As Baroness Armstrong said, social media isn’t going to go away.