It would be rare for a week to go by without me explaining to someone (anyone) the impact of the internet on gender equality. The sheer fact that women — any woman — can have her say in the public sphere has forever altered the discourse on the issues that really matter in the lives of ordinary people.
It’s most noticeable with opinion. In the past a woman had to pitch her written thoughts to a gatekeeper of the media and cross her fingers that it was deemed suitable and relevant. The explosion in female voices of the extreme and mainstream variety once the gates were removed suggests that far too many were probably ignored.
This was the central topic of the Digital Women discussion that I chaired as part of Melbourne Writer’s Festival last week. My fellow panelists were the always insightful media commentator and author Jane Caro and the refreshingly brilliant Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blogger and author Sarah Wendell.
Digital media for women and authors is like The X Factor is for hopeful singers and the music industry. It’s been an effective and fast means of gaining attention and eventually in many cases even a book publishing deal as the result of that cut-through. The reason it’s arguably a bigger deal for women is that the gatekeepers of the mainstream media that have to date limited women’s voices and stories to those of celebrity and victim, are irrelevant in the digital medium. Online anyone can have a voice.
Sarah Wendell is an example of that dream. It started with her blog that was launched to review romance books – a narrow focus on a part of the industry that would never have been given airtime in the traditional mainstream media. Her notoriety enabled her to publish a couple of books on the topic and now she has been flown across the world to speak at a conferences.
Prior to her arrival in Australia for the romance novelists conference in Fremantle and then the Melbourne Writer’s Festival I threw a few questions Sarah’s way to get a feel for her thinking on the topic. Here are her unedited responses.
- Do you believe that women connect differently to men via the digital medium?
Sarah Wendell: “I don’t think women connect differently in terms of media, but we prioritise different pieces of news. We use the same media (Facebook, Twitter) but we focus on different things and different topics.”
- Why have women embraced this platform?
SW: “Women, as has been discussed in so much feminist writing, have multiple jobs — a second shift, or a third shift, maybe. We may work out of the home, or in the home, but we also have home-management, family rearing and home-based tasks on our list as well. The digital platform allows women (all of whom, myself included, are busy people. To quote Marge Piercy, “All women hustle”) the time to connect directly with what we seek, whether it’s information, reassurance, or just empathy, as quickly and directly as possible. We are so busy, and so often isolated, we connect over the reassurance that we’re not alone, and that someone has faced this problem or had this question before.
“(There is a downside, of course. My paediatrician has had many a parent call in a panic because they think their child has meningitis, because Dr. Google said so after that parent looked up the child’s symptoms. NEVER ask Dr. Google. Dr. Google has TERRIBLE bedside manner!)
“Women have embraced this platform because, in part I think, of the access and freedom. Once you know how to search for what you want, you’ll usually find it. This has been my experience with romance readers, for example. Romance readers are often very reticent to talk to others about their reading, for fear (well-founded, that fear) of being ridiculed or rejected for liking romance. Online, no one is ever alone. There is always someone who likes the same things you do – even if they’re on the other side of the world. I still receive email from readers who are astonished at how many romance fans are online, eagerly talking to one another about books. With the internet and digital interaction, we can connect over the things that are most important to us individually, which is both reassuring, affirming, and educational — powerfully educational.”
- What has the digital environment done for gender equality?
SW:“I think this is still being explored, really. There are so many examples of men who have encountered misogyny and sexism when they log on to games or communities under their wives’ or girlfriends’ names, and are shocked at how they are treated. There is a growing trend in some sub-genres of romance, also, to publish under initial-surname combinations (ala JK Rowling) so as to mask gender identity. But there is also the opportunity to explore an identity online as someone of a different gender. And the sexism that is being talked about right now today as I type this means that it’s not as easy to hide (which means we can step on it and start to reduce it).
“One thing I’m fascinated by is the empowerment of young people by teaching them to code. Learning HTML changed my life, and I’m partially fluent in Spanish as well as American English (my native language). HTML is a language I communicate in daily, and the power of teaching people how to communicate in code can’t be underestimated. A new project I’ve been following is called ‘Black Girls Code,’ which is focused on teaching young women of colour how to code. Given that women, and women of colour, are hugely under-represented in science, math and technology fields, this is a pretty important project. This summer (here in the US – as in, right now this summer) they’ve been doing coding seminars in various cities, showing people how to code and how to learn more about programming.
“I’ve heard the phrase, ‘Information wants to be free,’ and I also think that people want access to information. Humans are curious – regardless of gender. The exploration of information is a potential equalizer. I hope anyway. I’m optimistic.”