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Social media and women's empowerment

At the opening of the Women and Work conference March 8 in Turin, Italy, Madlen Serban, the director of the European Training Foundation, or ETF, revealed an ambitious hope for the symposium. She hoped the event, held 100 years after the first international women’s conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1910, would yield new answers, rather than just new questions, about women in the workforce in EU-partner countries.

A century later, do we really have new answers?

As one of 22 female bloggers invited to a pre-conference workshop by international communications specialist Silvia Cambie, I set out to find out.

The invitation came along with the task of addressing three major issues of concern to the ETF, and to the EU at large – women’s transition from school to work, entrepreneurship and social inclusion. In the weeks leading up to the conference, questions and thoughts were shared on the Women and Work Ning group (, a virtual hub linking bloggers and writers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Lebanon, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Russia, Tunisia and eight more countries.

The day before the keynote address given by Jung Chang, author of “Wild Swans” and the first person from the People’s Republic of China to be awarded a Ph.D. from a British university, we sat in a large circle staring out onto a snow-covered terrace and cracked the ice by doing teambuilding and creativity exercises. Having all met virtually online, it was time to work together in person.

It turns out we all had something in common besides being mostly women. (The two male participants had spent a good deal of their working life trying to solve social problems and gender inequality.) It wasn’t that we were all bloggers, either, because as it turned out, only a handful of the participants had begun blogging in the early 2000s, while 10 or more had just started this year or were yet to start a blog. The commonality was that social media had brought us together.

Different vocations, same vision

Through Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs, Cambie curated a group of people addressing issues of women’s empowerment internationally. Lara Aharonian creates a support network for women in Yerevan at the Women’s Resource Center. Mari Sharashidze in Tbilisi enables women’s access to resources and information. Vedrana Spajic-Vrkas in Zagreb is stringent about curriculum and how it addresses gender imbalance as a professor in the faculty of humanities and social sciences. Elena Fedyashina plays a major role in furthering women business leaders with the nonprofit partnership The Committee of 20 in Moscow, while Fatma Mokhtar speaks to issues of equality and egalitarianism as a researcher for Nazra Association for Feminist Studies in Cairo.

By contrast, my own blog and Twitter stream based out of İzmit, and my own work about unraveling identity as it relates to art and domesticity, seemed a quiet hum amid the thundering chorus of powerful women I met.

Work groups hashed out tough questions about helping entrepreneurially inclined women develop self-esteem, and how to de-gender jobs by focusing on skills rather than sex. I suggested throwing out elimination of gender-specific language from job postings in Turkey as a first step.

Live Twitter streams detailed problems and suggestions throughout the day.

Tunisian Lina Ben Mhenni, coordinator of the captivating and highly controversial campaign “We are all Laila,” founded by Eman Abd El Rahman in Egypt, described herself as a blogger fighting for freedom of expression in her country. Journalist Jasmine Elnadeem of the Al-Ahram newspaper commented on specific tasks needed to be done to enable gender equality: train private and governmental media to involve human rights in their work and start role-modeling at early age in schools to spread awareness.

Strategic recommendations

Suggestions by the bloggers were made to five distinct groups: policy makers, public institutions such as the ETF, educators, employers and individuals. Given that all of the countries represented in my work group face hidden cultural, not legal, discrimination against women educationally, we suggested gender training for teachers and media professionals, multi-platform integrated approaches and mentoring programs to reach girls beginning at the elementary-school level and continuing through university.

We emphasized mandatory parental leave, not just maternity leave, additional support for single-parent mothers and a rigorous overhaul of educational materials that would tip the scales toward equality rather than gender imbalance. A quickly made video tackled four areas: work-life balance, social media, gender equality and role modeling. The video was uploaded to YouTube to be broadcast live the next day in front of academics, policy makers and women from more than 40 countries. It would be a delight to share were the service not banned in Turkey.

Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, joined the conference via video, arguing that concern for women is not a luxury during the economic crisis, nor is it something to address once other problems are solved. The potential of women needs to be addressed, and the EU cannot afford to ignore it, she said. More explicitly, Reding argued that the only difference between men and women is that women can give birth, and that for equal rights to be obtained, equal responsibility must be shared. While I cannot say that is a sentiment all will agree with, I do agree with her that the emancipation of women globally requires men to be full participants.

Boundary breaking

Dining the first night in Turin, at a restaurant specializing in seafood and veal, I turned to my companion and discovered she was Armenian, as was the woman sitting next to her. While chatting about the egalitarianism of Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that the Internet may be one of the few safe places for women to reveal their true thoughts, we decided to take a picture. Here we were, two Armenian women and one American married to a Turk flaunting our friendship in the face of Turkey’s complaints about the Obama administration’s lack of resolve to block the Armenian “genocide” resolution last week.

As I discovered in Turin, when it comes to the personal, peace and equality takes precedent over the political. One hundred years later, there are new answers, but there is also a very important question yet to be answered: Will policy makers heed our advice?

by Rose Deniz

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