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  • Katica Roy

What Hashtag Culture Teaches Us About Gender Equity

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Hashtags and gender equity aren’t about either.

They’re really about having a voice. Sexual harassment, assault, bias…none of these are new. What is new is our access to information and our access to each other. For folks who have survived harassment, assault, bias, or all three (myself included) hashtags give us a way to stand up, speak out, and connect with each other.

We were once living in a world where our voices had been muted, and many of us had been told it was our fault. Hashtags now give us a virtual connection.

It was mid-2017 when news broke about sexual harassment (and worse) in the startup world. I was already connected to almost every woman who came forward via an online female founders groups. In fact, Pipeline™ turned down money from a potential investor because we had discovered content shared on social media of his misconduct.

This is the power of social media. It is the power of connection. The power of standing together.

Hashtags Through The Years

There are far too many hashtags related to gender equity for one article to cover. There should probably be a library. So instead of covering every hashtag, I’ve chosen the ones that have been seminal in moving the gender equity conversation forward.

#WhyIStayed (#WhyILeft)

This powerful hashtag started in response to media criticism of Janay Palmer. Palmer chose to marry Ray Rice after he violently attacked her in 2014. One woman, Beverly Gooden, then began to tell her own story of experiencing domestic violence. This encouraged more and more women to tell their stories.

#WhyIStayed then gave rise to #WhyILeft, which was a hashtag that (mostly) women used to share their courage in leaving relationships fraught with domestic violence.

#WhyIStayed and the subsequent #WhyILeft matter to gender equity, but not in the way most people think they do. These hashtags highlight the media’s misdirected attention: instead of focusing on preventing domestic violence, the media was focusing on why Janay chose to stay.

#YesAllWomen (#AllMenCan)

In 2014, a 22-year old male — prompted by his anger against women — killed six people and himself in a shooting near his college in Santa Barbara. #YesAllWomen came in response to that mass shooting. Adding fuel to the flame, comments started circulating online that praised the male shooter and efforts to “only kill women.” This gave rise to women sharing stories of their frequent experiences with bias and sexism, and in response, people started using #NotAllMen as a reminder that “not all men are like that,” — i.e., not all men want to kill women or treat them unfairly.

Soon we began to see #AllMenCan, largely an effort to bring men into the conversation and demonstrate their voice in propelling forth the gender equity conversation. #AllMenCan also helped redefine what it means to “be a man.”

UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s 2014 speech inspired the #HeForShe hashtag. Emma boldly launched the HeForShe campaign as a call to action for men to be part of the gender equality movement. The momentum behind #HeForShe catalyzed over 1.3 billion commitments (and counting) to take action towards creating a world where gender equality is a reality.

The Obama Administration played a large role in building strength for #ItsOnUs. This hashtag points to the campaign, spearheaded by former Vice President Joe Biden, about stopping sexual assault on college campuses. The campaign has garnered over 2 billion impressions on social media.

This hashtag shed light on the misrepresentation of women in the media. The Representation Project used #AskHerMore to underscore the double standard of questions to female versus male actors in media interviews: male actors are posed questions about their next project and female actresses are posed questions about their attire. While media interviewers ask males questions focusing largely on their work, they ask females questions focusing largely on their looks.

#AskHerMore not only questions these media biases, it questions what we believe to be possible for women in power.

This is, perhaps, the most well-known hashtag right now. Tarana Burke created the hashtag and Alyssa Milano lit it on fire. It was her response to the news of Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo called for women who had been sexually harassed and assaulted to raise their voices online. Only by raising their voices could we begin to view the size of the problem.

In less than 24 hours over 4.7 million users spoke up on Facebook. Twitter wasn’t silent either, where users Tweeted the hashtag nearly a million times within 48 hours. With #MeToo, we began to see what was previously invisible: the silent epidemic of sexual harassment and assault.

#WhatAboutUs (#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen)

The #MeToo movement unintentionally left out the voices of all women, particularly women of color, who were unable to speak out. #WhatAboutUs responded to the whiteness and eliteness of the #MeToo movement and highlighted the harrowing stories of sexual harassment and assault from women. (Such as the stories of women at two Ford plants in Chicago, as featured in The New York Times.)

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen predated #MeToo, though it addresses a very similar issue to #WhatAboutUs: the underrepresentation of women of color in the gender equity movement. It raises awareness about the intersectionality, particularly of race and ethnicity with gender, in moving toward an inclusive gender equity future.

#TimesUp (#AskMoreOfHim)

If #MeToo and #WhatAboutUs raised awareness around gender inequality, then #TimesUp and #AskMoreOfHim moved us into action. Over 300 women who work in film, television, and theater came together to create an alliance — across industries — to end sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination.

They founded a legal defense fund to assist women fighting for equal rights at work. #TimesUp spurred #AskMoreOfHim as yet another call to action for male allies to stand up against sexual harassment and assault. The ad world has more recently created Times Up Advertising to address the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in their industry.

This hashtag is of particular importance because men hold the majority of leadership positions in corporations. Spearheaded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization, #MentorHer asks men to step up and be part of the solution to move towards gender equity in the workplace.

#MentorHer addresses the potential backlash from #MeToo by men, some of whom are hesitant to sponsor women for fear of being accused of sexual harassment.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2017 Global Gender Gap Report showed that, in one year, we had added 47 more years to the time it would take to reach gender equality. For the first time since WEF started publishing the report, we had moved backward in time.

#PressForProgress tipped the scales from awareness to actually making progress on gender equity, as was evident on International Women’s Day 2018.

This is the newest hashtag on the list. Female politicians in the UK launched #PayMeToo in response to the reporting that found private UK companies with over 250 employees had blatant gender pay gaps. This cross-party platform speaks to the political and economic imperative of gender parity in politics. Having more female elected officials has a positive impact on policy and the economy.

Hashtags In 2018

Hashtags are about having a voice and connecting with others who desire to speak up. The two most profound events around hashtags, for me, were Kelly Oxford and the Me Too movement. These events showed the courageousness of those coming forward. Them coming forward showed me that I too could have the courage. I remember debating whether I should post about my experiences when I saw Kelly Oxford’s #NotOkay posts, which received 1 million responses in less than 24 hours.

I remember reading those responses.

I remember staying silent. But then, almost a year to the day of Kelly Oxford’s post, #MeToo happened, and it was time. Time to speak up. I was not alone. In less than 24 hours, 4.7 million Facebook users drove 12 million posts, comments, and reactions.

The catharsis of knowing that I was not alone gave me a sense of belonging. I had connection. We had connection. It showed the world that we have a collective problem in our society — one that has largely been a silent epidemic: the sexual harassment and assault, mostly of women and girls.

In the US, 1 in 4 girls will be assaulted before she is 18 (and 1 in 6 boys). 1 in 5 college women will be assaulted; 1 in 4 women will survive domestic violence; 1 in 3 women are sexually harassed; over 50% of boys are physically assaulted before the age of 18.

We can stop this, and part of stopping this is working together. Hashtags give us an easier way to find each other and make change, together. It also gives us a way to bring male survivors and allies into the conversation.

The Future Of Hashtags

Hashtags will represent the ability to speak up, to hear people’s stories, and to be connected. Hashtags of the future will allow us to make change, together. They represent not only the end to an era of silence about things that make us uncomfortable, but also a shift in the burden from survivors to perpetrators. This is where the burden belongs. It is my hope that hashtags usher in an era where those who have done wrong can take accountability and get help, because they are suffering too.

Finally, we must remember that hashtags raise awareness about an issue. It is the first step in taking action. We also need to call on social media platforms to stop the online harassment that happens when people speak up. (Thank you, Twitter, for taking the first step in removing abusive content from your platform.) Let’s speak and then move forward to make change, together.


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