In 2017, Alyssa Milano posted a tweet asking women to reply with “Me Too” if they had been sexually harassed or experienced sexual assault.
It was the moment the #MeToo hashtag went viral, with the avalanche of responses impressing upon Milano the power technology can have in amplifying the message.
“Technology can be this incredible vehicle for social change and growing cultural movements like #MeToo,” said the actor, producer, author, and activist, speaking to this year's International Women's Day theme of technology, innovation, and #crackingthecode in a video message to the UN Women Australia for its IWD events.
“In terms of launching, shaping, and sharing opportunities for change, technology has played a truly pivotal role in reaching and connecting women globally, and giving them the opportunity to acknowledge their lived shared experiences of sexual violence in a very public yet personal way.”
It’s a view shared by Tarana Burke, the activist who started the MeToo movement back in 2006.
“I very much believe in the power of technology,” Burke told the UN Women Australia events, saying it provided an important platform for survivors to share their stories. “We have gotten people to pay attention to sexual violence in ways that we haven’t before.”
That’s not to say Burke and Milano aren’t acutely aware of the potential downsides to technology, not least the potential for social media discourse to quickly descend into toxicity.
While technology has played a huge role in storytelling and connecting grassroots movements around gender-based violence, it has its limitations, Burke said, some of which have resulted in a public misunderstanding of the breadth and depth of sexual violence.
“Because of the way the movement was popularised through a hashtag, it was harder for people to separate online celebrity gossip from the issue that affects peoples’ lives in the everyday.”
“The truth is, lots of everyday people, particularly black and brown people and marginalised people, did not see themselves reflected in what they saw on the TV screen and the news,” said Burke. “In Australia, you didn’t hear the stories of what was happening from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folk, or those in poorer disadvantaged communities.”
There’s little doubt the internet has been a gamechanger in terms of giving everyone a voice and a platform, but experts say that harnessing the positive effects of technology will require more women to be involved in the industry.
With the emergence of artificial intelligence, there is a need to understand and resist the online biases and often-flawed data points which are coded into everyday technology, according to Simone Clarke, the CEO of UN Women Australia.
“The answer lies in abandoning the harmful stereotypes and discriminatory behaviours that continue to reinvent existing biases,” Clarke said at UN Women Australia's events. “Let’s not translate existing biases that we feel everyday online and into new solutions.”
For Clarke, the way to combat those existing biases is to invest in more women in science, technology, engineering, and maths.
“We must invest in life-changing programs and training, to increase access, to improve capabilities and to enable financial empowerment of all women.”
Businesses have a part to play in removing the barriers facing women advancing their careers in STEM. Speaking on the UN Women Australia IWD virtual panel, Miranda Ratajski, Westpac’s Chief Information Officer Group Business Units, said that there is room for everyone in tech.
“When I think about artificial intelligence, the data that goes in to help make business decisions is so incredibly important. You want the people writing the code for artificial intelligence to look like the rest of our community,” said Ratajski. In that sense, a more diverse tech workforce can only be a good thing for broader society.
Ratajski said that according to Deloitte's Diversty Equity and Inclusion report, businesses with diverse workforces are twice as likely to exceed their financial targets, three times more likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative and agile in their approaches, and eight times more likely to have better business outcomes.
“The best way we can look after our customers or our stakeholders, is if we have teams that look like them. They’re the ones who understand them and make sure we can give them what they need.”
As for the future role of technology in social change movements like #MeToo, Burke said that we need to use it to continually remind ourselves of what’s at the heart of the conversation.
“All the while, we can’t forget what this really is – it’s a public health crisis and social justice issue.”
Westpac is an official partner of UN Women Australia.