A New Way of Empowerment: the digital society and the impacts on women

In the lecture hall of Durham University, it is common to see students taking notes with their laptops or iPads. The students who use the ‘traditional method’ – writing with ‘real’ pen and paper – are left to be the very few. Thus, one could not deny that we have entered the digital era. It is then important to recognise its impact especially with it being so significant and life-changing. More importantly, with the increase in concern for women’s rights and status in recent years, it is worthy to investigate how women have benefited and empowered from the effects brought by the digital era.

The Digital Era

Defined by the IGI Global, the digital era is heavily influenced by the internet and digital technologies. The digital era, as known as the information age defined by Castells (1996), is an age characterized by the increase in speed and breadth of information and knowledge spread in every aspect of society. The society we are living in is no longer industrial, but rather is a network society characterised by three elements: timeless time, space of flows, and real virtuality (Castells, 1996). With the use of digital technologies, such as the internet and social media, information can be transcended instantly, regardless of time and space. Real virtuality then refers to cyberculture based on digital technology, computers, and devices that happen in real life (Kozak, 2021). Especially with the use of social media, such as the rise of ‘Facebook and Skype in 2003…Instagram in 2010 and Zoom in 2011’ (Nurmila, 2021:113), our lives are then more intertwined with the internet culture.

The Positive Impacts to All, Especially Women

Economically, the digital era has provided unprecedented convenience for career finding and employment. Many studies have proved that advanced internet technology brings positive effects to employment (Crandall et al., 2007; Bai, 2017). The numbers of part-time and home-based workers are prompted by the increase in job opportunities in small firms and online remote working (Vazquez and Winkler, 2017). These career opportunities are contributed by the easily accessible internet. According to Smith (2015), more than 80% of the participants admit that it is easy to look up available jobs, services, and programs online, contact potential employers by email, fill out a job application online, create a resume online and so on.

Women are then empowered to connect with the outside world by joining the labour force (Sinha, 2019). Under the digital era, the development of the ICT is no longer concentrated in the developed areas, but it is also extending to the developing world, where women from either rural areas or cities are granted a chance to get access to the internet (Sinha, 2019). Dettling (2017) claims that the use of the internet has encouraged an increase in 4.1% of married women in the workforce since the use of the internet can save time for home production by working remotely at home. Dettling (2017) continues by suggesting that the Internet facilitates work-life balance which avoids the occurrence and intensification of the gender wage gap and the lack of women’s presence in the leadership roles (Black et al., 2008). With the Internet providing flexible and remote working opportunities for women (Aditina and Sugiharti, 2019), their participation and status in the workforce have then increased more than ever before.

Socially, the digital era has provided a platform for people to connect by viewing and sharing content. YouTube is a social media and an online video-sharing forum where users can receive, post, and modify any type of video content (Pisani, 2006). It satisfies what Rubin and Rubin (2001) called media-related needs, including entertainment, information seeking, and passing time (Ebersole, 2000; Wolfradt & Doll, 2001), and interpersonal needs, including interpersonal utility, social or interpersonal interaction (Ebersole, 2000; Kaye & Johnson, 2002). The video comment section in YouTube not only encourages viewers to share opinions about the video content with others (Haridakis and Hanson, 2009), but also facilitates communication with content creators. For example, it is a popular trend for content creators to do Q&As by letting their viewers ask questions in the comment section. It shows that with the use of social media, it is then convenient for people to connect and interact with each other anytime and anywhere.

The access and spread of information in the digital era help educate and connect women and raise awareness of gender-related and human rights issues. In a study about Muslim feminism, it suggests that, compared to the industrial era, where reading materials were only available in print, the spread of Muslim feminism ideas is much easier with the online access of reading materials with translated versions and free online training on Gender and Islam, reaching a wider audience throughout Indonesia and even to people who are aboard (Nurmila, 2021). In addition, the digital era provides a platform for women to connect and share experiences and opinions and participate in various activities (Sinha, 2019), such as uniting and sharing feminist ideas on social media through WhatsApp groups, Facebook, Zoom and so on (Nurmila, 2021). Through the communication and connection between women, from a psychological aspect, they are then more likely to feel more attached and less isolated, where their mental wellbeing and self-esteem can be improved. (Sinha, 2019). Consequently, it can lead to greater motivation and enthusiasm to develop new skills and knowledge (Sinha, 2019).

Politically, the digital era reshapes and encourages political activism by providing a whole new way to participate in a wide range of political issues. The mainstream reports and social media sources reinforce the way how information spreads and gradually established a media-protest environment (Bailo and Vromen, 2017). Nowadays, the use of the internet is already inseparable from operating and encouraging political participation in many world cities (Lynch, 2011; Shirky, 2011), including Kiev, New York, Hong Kong, and so on (Jost et al., 2018). Social media works as a platform for movement organisers to plan and convene participators efficiently, such as releasing information about turnout, transportation, police presence, violence (Jost et al., 2018). With the great advantage of information spread, individuals also use social media to promote certain political movements by conveying emotional and motivational content (Pera, 2018). These emotional contents include text and pictures illustrating anger, social identification, ideological themes, justice, deprivation and so on (Jost et al., 2018).

The power of the internet and social media empower women in promoting feminist activism and resistance to patriarchy (Youngs, 2001). The #Metoo movement in 2017 is one of the biggest feminist movements which brought sexual violence under the spotlight once in a blue moon (Jaffe, 2018). As reported by the New York Times (Kantor and Twohey, 2017), this movement escalated in 2017 when more than a dozen women accused the former film producer Harvey Weinstein of committing sexual violence against them, including harassing, assaulting, or raping. In addition, actress Alyssa Milano called on women to use the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter to voice out their experiences of sexual violence around the world, where the hashtag had been used over 200,000 times by the end of the day (Rozina, 2017). In response to the movement, Weinstein was being charged with rape and was convicted of two out of five sexual assault felonies and had been sentenced to 23 years in prison at last (Ransom, 2020). The example of the #Metoo movement shows that the power of the internet, especially media reports and social media, is the most efficient way to encourage political participation and, in this context, female activism. More importantly, within the digital era, women are empowered to voice out their concerns and injustice, which have the power to force the legislature to act for their rights (Sinha, 2019).

To conclude, the digital era is time-and-space-transcending in the sense that the spread of information is instant and is not limited to anyone around the world. With internet access and various social media platforms, people’s lives, especially women’s, have changed drastically. Economically, people are more used to seeking jobs online and working remotely. For women, they are empowered to participate in the labour force by working online at home and gaining economic independence. Socially and psychologically, people are more connected since various interactions can be conducted online, linking people from all walks and all around the world. For women, the access to internet help educate them informally which helps raise their awareness of gender-related issues and self-values. Women can also unite by connecting on different social media platforms, which empowers them psychologically. Politically, the internet and social media help raise political participation by organizing movements efficiently and conveying emotional content. For women, the internet help unite women on social media platforms and encourage them to speak up about similar oppressive experiences, which eventually achieves legal response and justice. The digital era is then one of the breaking points for women’s oppression when they are eventually freer to empower themselves and take control of their lives.

Ani Fung