Technology is feminism’s friend and foe

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

Story highlights

Technology and women's empowerment was the subject of a recent SXSW panel

Tech gives women a voice and allows them to connect, women say

It also poses challenges for women, especially in areas such as sex trafficking

Number of female freshmen who want to study computer science is down 79% since 2000

CNN  — 

Imagine that Twitter existed when Gloria Steinem helped usher in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

How much louder a voice would she and other feminists of that time have had to bring attention to the unequal economic, political and social rights of women? Would we be further along on that still incomplete path to equal rights if they had the technological resources we have today?

Suppose the Internet were available in the developing world several decades ago; how much more aware would girls have been about the world around them? How much more attention would have been paid to the harsh treatment of many girls worldwide?

Or what if groups of anonymous online activists, who have exposed sexual abuse against young women, were around 20 or 30 years ago? How many rapes would not have been swept under the rug?

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It’s heady to think what modern connective technology could have done for women if it existed years ago and how it’s empowering women and girls around the world today. At the same time, some of the very technology that is moving us forward could also be setting us back by making harassment and exploitation of women easier.

That intersection of technology and empowerment was the subject of a panel I was honored to participate in during this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

Feminism 2.0

“The worldwide web is the newest (and arguably most important) realm in our society that presents great opportunities and significant challenges for women,” said Carla Franklin, the organizer of the panel, who calls herself a “2.0 feminist.”

“It’s women using high-tech to make sure we have equal rights, making sure that as moms, as daughters, as granddaughters, as nieces, as aunts, we are empowering ourselves in the workplace, at home, in our lives in general, and we do that through technology,” said Franklin, who is the founder and managing director of Carlin Solutions, a management consulting firm.

Maggie Neilson is partner and chief executive officer of Global Philanthropy Group, an organization that helps charitable foundations, corporations and celebrities provide philanthropic services.

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“I think two of the strengths of technology on its own are relevant with women’s issues; one is the ability to give voice and two is the ability to connect,” Neilson said during the panel discussion.

She cited as one example her company’s work with Gucci last year, helping the company start an online platform called Chime for Change, which began as a global concert. The initiative, co-founded by Beyonce, Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini, an Italian fashion designer, helps bring together voices speaking out for girls and women around the world in the areas of education, health and justice.