Technology Is Feminism's Friend And Foe


Maggie Neilson is partner and chief executive officer of Global Philanthropy Group, an organization that helps charitable foundations, corporations and celebrities provide philanthropic services.

"I think two of the strengths of technology on its own are relevant with women's issues; one is the ability to give voice and two is the ability to connect," Neilson said during the panel discussion.

She cited as one example her company's work with Gucci last year, helping the company start an online platform called Chime for Change, which began as a global concert. The initiative, co-founded by Beyonce, Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini, an Italian fashion designer, helps bring together voices speaking out for girls and women around the world in the areas of education, health and justice.

The impact of celebrities getting involved and putting the word out has led to extraordinary results, she said.

"We've rescued sex trafficking victims. We've had young women in the United Kingdom receive mentoring help," said Neilson, who added that these feats were accomplished because the technology existed to connect people.

Trying to take the concept to the next level and figure out how to use technology to really move the idea forward, Neilson's firm reached out to Twitter. The company hosted a hackathon for three days, where coders came from all over Silicon Valley and developed apps such as one to help get vaccinations to rural areas and another to help women who have been victims of sexual abuse on college campuses.

"If you can do that in a couple of months' time, there really is no telling what technology can open up for all of us," she said.

Tech Taking 'The Covers Off' Social Issues
Technology has certainly opened our eyes to the plight of women and girls around the world. Consider the impact social media had on galvanizing international outrage after the horrific and deadly gang rape of a young Indian medical student, or the power of Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, an advocate for the right of girls to an education, who was targeted and shot by a gunman, and who has since become an international heroine.

"Technology has definitely taken the covers off a lot of social issues when it comes to women," said panelist Tara Hughes, senior director of technical product management at Turner Broadcasting, CNN's parent company. "I think it's provided a voice for the voiceless, so we wouldn't know some of the things that were going on in countries like India or (in) the Middle East if it wasn't for some of those social networks."

Franklin cited some of the rape cases in the United States brought to light by the group Anonymous or other groups that have "shed light on injustices." She also pointed to technology's help for women impacted by cyberbullying and cyberharassment.

Just to see the groundswell of support for victims because of ... awareness through the Internet is a critical thing," said Franklin, who was one of 50 women featured on More Magazine's "Fierce List" for her relentless efforts to hold accountable a cyberstalker who was harassing her.

In many ways, technology has also helped women better balance work, family and outside interests. "We can now order groceries on the way home from work," said Franklin via e-mail. "We can run our own companies using virtual offices and virtual assistants."

Neilson, who has two elementary school-age daughters, says technology gives her the flexibility she needs and values.

"I can, as someone who owns my own business, go coach my daughter's basketball team and work at night," she said. "I can, as I'm on a flight home, be paying the bills and ordering stuff for their birthday party this weekend or whatever the case may be."

How Tech Can Also Set Women Back
But just as technology, in many ways, may be the best friend of feminism, it can also be its foe: That same technology that is empowering us can also push us down.

During her work on sex trafficking, Neilson told me via e-mail, she heard johns discuss how "the combination of mobile phones and online want ad platforms have made it easier to order a girl than a pizza." Girls and women make up 75% of global human trafficking victims, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In Saudi Arabia, the government has launched a system allowing officials to send text messages to men when female members of their family try to travel abroad alone, Neilson said.

And then there is the issue of anonymity on the Internet, which has led to far too many cases of women being terrorized, ridiculed and bullied. The meanness can also sometimes come from surprising sources. 

Any woman who has reported on or expressed an opinion about feminism online knows there can be a backlash, but sometimes that backlash comes from other feminists, which is harder to comprehend.

"The way that women's groups and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups turn on each other in comments' sections is mind-boggling," said Neilson.

This article originally appeared in CNN