New Report Discusses Online Feminism, Collaboration, and How Business Can Get Involved

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last month the Barnard Center for Research on Women published a report on the future of online feminism. The paper, “#FemFuture: Online Revolution,” is written by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti, and discusses the opportunities that the internet is providing for people working toward gender equality. It also discusses the challenge that exists in building momentum for a movement driven by virtual relationships.

While the internet has provided a voice and a platform for people who advocate for equality, it has also created more decentralization within the movement. Martin and Valenti believe more strategic collaboration will help propel feminism forward, and strengthen the discussion. In her introduction, Martin writes:

“Forging partnerships between feminists – online and off, younger and older, poor and wealthy, organizing at the grassroots and strategizing at the treetops – will have far-reaching consequences. It will foster the formation of new connections between grassroots advocacy and service organizations, educational institutions, coalitions, unions, convenings, conferences, legacy media, policy makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, etc. Online feminism has the capacity to be like the nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic.”

They also discuss the value of partnering with leaders in the business space. Developing institutional know-how and business acumen, they reason, will help feminists create meaningful and long-lasting change.

The Challenges

The report is based on suggestions provided by 21 online activists and writers about how feminists can work “more effectively and sustainably.” To begin with, the writers discussed how the online space has made it much easier to discuss the value of gender equality and mobilize people toward change.

“Compared to the weeks or months of prep time it takes to gather thousands of people in one place for a rally or march, online feminism can mobilize thousands within minutes,” they write. “The feminist movement will continue to make strides through lobbying, on-the-ground, organizing, and creating meaningful discourse through academia, but online feminism now offers a new entry point for feminist activism.”

But, they continue, the online space has its drawbacks. There are very few outlets for people to strategize and work proactively together. They write:

“The lack of infrastructure and sustainability for the online feminist movement makes it nearly impossible to think about more meaningful, long-term strategizing. More than ever, we need to create effective proactive campaigns and policies to prevent sexist encroachments in the first place, rather than being in a perpetual state of pushback.”

The online space enables people to work in a decentralized fashion. As a result, there is little effort made toward forward thinking strategy and collaborative action. But there is the possibility for change.

Feminism in Business

In decrying a lack of face-to-face collaboration amongst feminists, the authors seem to miss a huge population of women who do work together, in person, toward strategic change: women involved in gender equality in the corporate setting. It is true that the report is focused on feminism online, but many of the women involved in the workplace initiatives are online – for example, right here on The Glass Hammer.

It isn’t until the question of capacity-building and funding comes into play that the report even mentions the corporate space, and while the authors do make great suggestions, it is a shame that the activism already taking place within the business community isn’t seen as worthy of discussion. The truth is, many, many women work in the corporate setting, and many of them care about equality (and so does a growing group of corporate men). By omitting them, the report creates a vision of feminism that is incomplete.

Nevertheless, Martin and Valenti provide useful suggestions on how online feminist activists can better collaborate with the corporate community. For example, they suggest, the tech space can provide a valuable tools for online activism.

“The time couldn’t be better to create a new feminist innovation economy. Thinking creatively about using business to develop innovative technology in the name of gender equity could be a game-changer not only for the feminist movement, but could change the landscape for the tech gender gap, where women are largely creating the business and the technology.”

Similarly, they suggest a week long Feminist Business Bootcamp, at which online activists could work with business leaders to get training on fundraising and development. They also propose a longer term initiative – the #FemFuture Innovation Accelerator – which “would provide longer-term support, where blogs and online organizers could apply to be part of a four to 12 month program in which they would get an initial start-up budget, business training, probono strategy and planning support, mentorship, and introductions to potential investors and supporters.”

Still, Martin and Valenti mainly discuss the involvement of the business world as means to an end – better equipping online feminists to collaborate with one another. Rather, it may be more productive to actually engage, collaborate, and strategize with diversity leaders within the business and corporate world, where the challenges of inequality play out in the workforce every day. What have corporate diversity leaders learned about institutional change that online activists could leverage? What could corporate diversity leaders apply to workforces that online activists could teach them? Business can be a useful tool for online feminists, but a vision of business people as outsiders rather than equality partners may hamper the movement.