Women Are Changing The World More Effectively Online

Aug 1, 2017

No matter what you think about civic organizing online, new research centered on shows that digital activism is increasingly one of the most effective forms of keeping our democracy healthy.

It’s a bit counterintuitive, since public spaces that encourage nonpartisan, constructive dialogue across ideologies have been in increasingly short supply. There’s a lot of talking and theorizing online, but not as much connection. When people do connect, it’s rare that trolls and hate speech are not part of the mix.

Offline, things aren’t too much better: Most people don’t even talk to their neighbors.

But several months into Donald Trump’s presidency, a surge of civic participation that has originated online has filled streets, parks and lawmakers’ offices. The Resistance in the U.S. has been embodied by a slew of rallies, town halls and marches. Trump supporters have countered with marches, protests and rallies of their own.

And while women have featured prominently in many of these events — most notably The Women’s March — women are largely underrepresented in positions of lawmaking authority and prominence.

Our platform is best known for its petitions — and signing a petition, according to researchers, is to marching what creating a petition is to running for office. These are the differences between thin participation, or participation that doesn’t take much effort, and thick participation — those activities that require a significant investment of time, money and energy.

That is, thin participation (often lovingly referred to as “slacktivism” or “push button democracy”) is generally more popular with women. Thick participation tends to be more popular with men, which explains the lack of gender parity in U.S. politics. But it turns out that all thin participation is not equal — and it’s not ineffective.

In fact, particularly for women around the world, there are real benefits to using Our platform of over 180 million users in more than 196 countries does “a commendable job of mitigating the effects of unequal participation — democracy’s unresolved dilemma,” the authors of new research from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation wrote in an Op Ed recently published in the Washington Post.

After analyzing more than 3.9 million signers of petitions from 132 countries, the team determined the following:

  • Women create fewer petitions than men, but they sign more often and are more effective at online mobilization.
  • When women do create petitions, they are more successful than other petitions – and are signed more often by both men and women.
  • Research suggests that female petition creators’ effectiveness is due to their greater mobilization ability and not due to women choosing easier issues to write petitions about.
  • Successful petitions reflect female users’ priorities more closely than men’s, independent of the gender of the person who created the petition.
  • The issues that women tend to create petitions for are animal rights and women’s rights. Men most often create petitions around economic justice and human rights.

The authors had fascinating findings for anyone interested in how to close gaps in women’s political success and intend to continue to sort out the implications of this work for extending equity to women in digital spaces everywhere. Even if the limitations and manifestations of sexism sometimes appear to suggest the opposite, online, most people rally around the issues that women deem important. That’s refreshing parallel to our real world scenario, where women have taken the lead on defending democracy at every turn. Another important finding is that the unique platform design may lend itself to providing more meaningful opportunities for successful political participation for women than the current electoral structure in established democracies.

This data reinforces the victories we see daily on Maybe everyone doesn’t think signing a petition is the most assertive expression of your civic goals. But it turns out that the subtle power of thin participation is that it is a catalyst for millions of women everywhere to actualize their democratic goals and ideals in an inclusive way. For now, that happens online far more often than it does in politics or anywhere else.