How social media has empowered women to rewrite the rules

Thought Leadership
Huffington Post recently published this article by our Head of Editorial, Charlie Cottrell, reflecting on the call from this year’s International Women’s Day to celebrate the women who have seized the opportunity to use social media to challenge the status quo, and how social media continues to help give women a chance to shape society. They’ve been kind enough to let us share an extended version of the article below.

In October 2017, Alyssa Milano asked the women of Twitter to write ‘#MeToo’ if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted. Within days, tens of thousands of women had responded. Within weeks, one of the most powerful men on the planet was toppled and industries from entertainment to politics were given a shake-up. One lone voice became a shared voice, which became a rally cry. “Time’s up,” called Oprah from her Golden Globes podium and across the world, there was a powerful feeling she could be right.

Labour’s Stella Creasy and fellow female MPs recently launched the #PayMeToo campaign in the wake of the astonishing gender pay gaps reported by businesses across the country. Using social media as a springboard, they’ve joined forces to encourage women to hold their employers to account and demand action.

It’s one more example demonstrating how over the last decade we’ve seen social media mature from a university message board, to a repository of cat images, to a borderless global hive-mind with the collective power to change culture with a hashtag. Social has a very special place in my heart, it’s transformed my career at a time when publishing was under threat, and constantly inspires me with new ways of telling creative stories to global audiences.

You only have to look at the rise of female influencers to see this story played out en mass. These are women who aren’t just calling the shots, changing the conversation on social media, and creating new careers on the way. Social media has given more people a voice – and in particular, it’s given women a new and immediate way of communicating and galvanising their agendas. Whether via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram, social media provides ready communities for women who have previously felt marginalised and powerless, helping to them find a tribe and amplify their voice.

Last month, International Women’s Day called for a celebration of the women who have seized this opportunity and used social media to challenge the status quo. These are the women who questioned all the crappy bits of our life we thought were set in stone; things like power imbalances or restrictive career options or what our bodies should look like. “Why does it have to be like this?” we asked and these women shouted back, “It doesn’t!”

Women changing the agenda
The idea for Mumsnet came from a disastrous first family holiday. “If only, I thought, we could have tapped into a network of people who’d already worked out that under-fives and jet lag do not mix – before we’d shelled out a small fortune.” says Justine Roberts, Mumsnet founder and CEO. What started out as a support group for parents at their most vulnerable has become a network of like-minded women with influence at the very highest levels. “Quite early on we realised that our users were challenging preconceptions about mothers. It’s amazing how much people assume mothers are cloistered or censorious, or just a bit thick. 2006 was the big turning point: David Cameron, who was then leader of the opposition, did a webchat on Mumsnet in his first public appearance after paternity leave. It really put our users on the map as a group that mattered to politicians.” The 2010 election was dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’.

As a collective, the Mumsnet community has created an agenda of issues that might otherwise never had airtime. “We helped to get a big change in the libel laws; we worked closely with retailers to stop the sale of clothing that played upon adult conceptions of young girls’ sexuality; we’ve pushed miscarriage care much further up the agenda and are now working closely with NHS England on postnatal care.”

Women changing the work rules
Digital Mums is a company connecting businesses who need social media support with a network of freelance mums.

“Both myself and my work-wife Kathryn Tyler come from low income and working class backgrounds and saw our mothers struggle when we were growing up.” Says co-founder Nikki Cochrane, “The only part-time work they could get was low paid cleaning jobs.”

“We read a report by the Fawcett society which said maternal unemployment was at a 25 year high and we realised that mums would be a perfect solution to supporting businesses with their digital skills-gaps. We knew social media was a job that could be done on the move from a smartphone which meant that you did not have to be tied to a desk.”

Since 2013, Digital Mums has trained 1350 women with in-demand skills to help them create stimulating, flexible careers that fit around family life. “They have set up their their own agencies, they have become influencers in their own right, they’ve been to the Houses of Parliament and are currently setting up a mentoring programme. It’s mind blowing what we can achieve as women when we stand together and unite and our community never ceases to amaze us.”

Cochrane is certain there is no way this could have been achieved without social media.
“It’s given us a platform to reach the women that want change. Culture is shaped by our collective behaviours and social media has played a huge part in giving women a public platform to unite around their beliefs.”

Women changing culture
Just 4% of radio shows have an all-women line up. Frustration that intelligent, entrepreneurial women were not hearing the stories they wanted, on mainstream media, inspired the creation of Badass Women’s Hour. The award-winning podcast is now a three-hour live show, every Saturday night on talkRADIO. “We are putting out the conversations we want to have instead of the ones traditional media wants to dictate and this is so important for influence and change.” Says co-host Emma Sexton.

“Changing the conversation and being a catalyst for women to live their lives the way they want is really important to us – it is badass to live life on your own terms. The rise in women’s voices on podcasts is really exciting.”

Social is essential to the project, from its podcast origins and finding inspiring women to be the guests, to making sure the show’s content deals with the issues that matter. “The power of social media is that now we can see themes and trends in the things people really want. For so long mainstream media could dictate this – now we can dictate to them.”

Women changing other things
It doesn’t take an internet Miss Marple to find collectives of women challenging stereotypes and dusty cultural norms. Here are some worth searching for:

#IWeigh – An instagram post of the Kardashians tagged with their weight in KG, inspired Jameela Jamil, to call out reductive bodyshaming and demand women be measured by their achievements. A mini-movement is playing out across the platform.

#SideProfileSelfie – Journalist, Radhika Sanghani tweeted a picture of her ‘big nose’ and started the #SideProfileSelfie challenge to help people conquer their insecurities and shatter unrealistic beauty standards.

OHNE – 60% of women, would rather say they have diarrhoea than admit they’re on their period and 82% hide their period products. This tampon brand is using social to destigmatize menstruation in defiance of mainstream media because, “every person is here as a result of a uterus which, at some point, bled.”

As social media grows up, it gives us the cultural influence to ‘be the change’. We owe a huge thank you to the pioneers who’ve led the way.