How the Internet Is Helping Young Women Empower Themselves

This much we know: not long ago Dalton McGuinty backed away from proposed changes to Ontario's sexual education curriculum; today, Kathleen Wynne is intent on going ahead with them. What's changed?

Evolving attitudes and new political calculations, many say. But a deeper look suggests these changes in attitudes and politics are themselves dependent on a more fundamental shift, toward new technologies. Online tools are upending entrenched power dynamics by giving voice to people long excluded from the public discourse. Both the data and the success stories we see at Change.org suggest women -- in particular young women -- are most adept at tapping into the digital age's potential and that changes everything.

Consider the debate over sexual education, specifically over including consent in the curriculum. Five years ago, politicians, parents and teachers sparred publicly over what was right. This time, we heard immediately from those most affected, those who best understand the reality of growing up and going to school in the era of sexting and cyber-bullying: 13-year-old girls.

What started for Tessa Hill and Lia Valente as an eighth grade project exploring rape culture quickly became We Give Consent, a major public campaign to put consent in the curriculum. Buoyed by a savvy digital strategy and armed with over 30,000 online petition signatures, they secured a meeting with Wynne, who then tweeted a pic of her with "two inspiring girls," adding "we are putting consent in our curriculum."

Tessa are Lia adeptly leveraged technology to bring issues affecting women to the fore, as did Nova Scotian Sherri Bain when she convinced her government to launch anindependent review of Rehtaeh Parsons's case; the thousands who secured funding for a Toronto family shelter; and the young women who got Seventeen magazine to stop photoshopping models and Victoria's Secret to drop the slogan "The Perfect Body" in favour of "A Body for Every Body."

These are not trivial victories -- women are improving and even saving lives with effective online mobilization. And they've inspired others. Loretta Saunders's cousin Holly Jarrett has amassed massive support for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women; Victoria's Merna Forster has united thousands hoping to see a Canadian woman on our banknotes (and has cleverly collected hundreds of ideas from the public online); a new petition asks federal leaders to debate issues affecting women.

A bigger picture emerges: women are effectively embracing and gaining influence through online mobilization. Might we measure this perceived "tech effect" on women's empowerment?

At Change.org, our internal research reveals fascinating insights: while slightly more petitions on our site are created by men, petitions launched by women more often "win" the change they are seeking. Campaigns led by women tend to better mobilize networks and get significantly more support -- upwards of two and a half times more. And women account for an astounding 70 per cent of signatures globally.

The effect is real. For clues to understanding it, we can look at what sorts of behaviours are well-suited to the online world:

The digital age favours the consensus-builder. The web allows us to share more and better information more widely. Successful online campaigns tend to have broad, cross-partisan appeal. 
They seek common ground and are framed around notions most of us understand and admire: fairness, justice, peace.

The digital age favours the collaborator. It is difficult to "own" anything online. If you want your idea to succeed, you need to be open to working with and trusting others.

Most importantly, the digital age favours the storyteller. Today anyone can publish anything, but what rises above noise and chaos? Stories -- compelling personal stories that evoke empathy while illustrating a need for systemic change.

In this light, the kinship between women and the web is not so surprising, nor is the fact many top tech companies -- Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and yes, Change.org -- are headed by women.

Back to Lia and Tessa. They likely didn't change Premier Wynne's mind -- surely she already favoured a modernized curriculum -- but they altered the discourse. They told their story, emboldened supporters, and helped attitudes evolve. They demonstrated broad support and allowed a political leader (who owes some of her own success to effective online tactics) to make a different political calculation.

Above all they proved what's possible. Women are more likely to win but likely to think they will win, our research shows. But confidence builds from seeing others succeed. Already, young women are demanding consent be included in otherprovinces' curricula.

Full disclosure: I have a personal stake. Almost two months ago our first child was born, a daughter. March 8 marked her first International Women's Day, and I can't help but be optimistic. She'll grow up in a world she'll be able to shape -- a world where new technologies give women more power than ever, be they premiers or pupils.

 

This article also appeared on Huffington Post Canada