As we celebrate international women’s day, there’s a sense that we could be on the cusp of lasting change for women’s rights and gender equality. Millions have rallied behind the #MeToo and #Timesup campaigns, leading to countless women coming forward to tell their stories. Yet, as global a phenomenon as these movements have been, the long-term effect that they will have on social attitudes remains to be seen. So often we see media campaigns make a deafening, but short-lived noise. Could we finally be seeing a shift in pace?
According to a survey by NatCen, progress is being made. Social liberalisation in attitudes across a range of personal and political issues is a growing feature of British society. In fact, the findings show that growing liberalism has accelerated in recent years. As an example of a striking change, just 15 % of the British population were accepting of same-sex relationships in 1990. Fast forward just 16 years to 2016 and that number stands at a far more tolerant 64%.
It would appear that in an era of instant communication and global information, the kind of change that would have taken social movements decades is now happening in less than a generation. According to a Pew survey, overall, 20% of people say they’ve modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media. Not a completely modest percentage when you consider what a sisyphean task altering opinions can be.
We’re celebrating the suffrage centenary this year, a movement which saw British women finally get the vote in 1918. It took activists and reformers 52 years to win that right and, even then, it was only on a limited basis. Yes, media coverage on the suffragettes’ actions was wide-spread and ultimately proved valuable to the cause. Whether positive of negative, it fueled protests and eventually put pressure on the government to respond. But it was still a decades-long fight. 100 years on and, although the fight for gender equality and women’s rights continues, it is encouraging to see the tides starting to turn faster.
A change in attitudes is only a fraction of the battle but is a big step towards concrete action. And whilst individuals can make a difference by harnessing the power of the media, let’s not forget the significant influence that organisations have with their mass reach.
Browse the websites of most companies nowadays and it won’t be long before you come across their ‘sustainability commitment’ or words on ‘gender inclusivity’. And it’s not just lip service. Organisations now recognise that they have a responsibility to build social change into their DNA. Through both traditional and new media, they have the capacity to significantly shape the public debate.
Most companies are working their way towards rectifying gender imbalances, for example employers know that the clock is ticking on the gender pay gap. Some are going that one step further and seeking to change personal behaviors for the social good. Take Barclays. They are one of just 10 corporate organisations (and the only financial services institution) to be invited by the UN to support HeForShe which aims to engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality. Barclays can spread their message far and wide with their significant presence across social channels and high-profile media spokespeople. In 2014 they featured #HeforShe on all of their cash machines, creating awareness and informing people about how they could get involved. Those cash machine messages reached nearly 5,000,000 people.
The state of the world that future generations will inherit is everyone’s responsibility. From the individual to the organisation. The communications tools at our disposal today can act as a real catalyst for change for social good. We should all try to exploit that.