A few weeks ago I attended the S.H.E. Summit, one of a growing number of women’s empowerment conferences recently highlighted by the New York Times. A variety of factors have fueled this trend, but one major catalyst is the increasing influence of hashtag activism, especially in the corporate world.
A 2011 Guardian article about Occupy Wall Street was the first to use the term “hashtag activism,” but writer Eric Augenbraun’s wariness about “breathless claims about the birth of a new form of technology-based social movement” is still shared by many today.
Speaking at S.H.E., MSNBC host Krystal Ball challenged those reservations. She highlighted numerous examples of how social media activism has had a real impact on women’s issues, including a successful campaign to get an offensive plastic surgery simulation app removed from the iTunes store, a project that has crowdsourced sexual violence data in Syria, and the online outrage that forced Lululemon to replace its CEO. “Even when it’s just sparking a conversation through a hashtag, I think that’s important,” Ball said when talking about #YesAllWomen. And hashtags have certainly sparked quite a few conversations recently.
While introducing Ball, S.H.E.’s Margaret O’Brien White’s quoted a recent Forbes piece by Susan McPherson, “Empowering Women and Girls, One Hashtag at a Time,” which compiles a wide range of noteworthy campaigns. “This is truly the breakout year for driving awareness on women and girls’ issues through hashtag activism,” McPherson writes. Millennials and the LGBT community have already made waves in this arena, but women form a majority on social media, and the collective power they can wield is becoming increasingly clear.
As the Lululemon and other crises have shown, that power can effect a change at the highest levels of corporate leadership. “Leadership is about feeling that you are the owner of your own experience and future,” McKinsey & Company’s Joanna Barsh remarked in another S.H.E. Summit talk. As more and more women realize that fostering this sense of ownership on social media moves them toward similar empowerment in the real world, the momentum is only going to pick up.
How Corporate Leaders Can Navigate this Growing Movement
How can corporate leaders navigate this growing movement? Follow the conversations I’ve referenced here as they continue to develop, including #hashtags on Twitter. Stay aware of the key issues concerning women, especially those regarding employment opportunities, the lack of women on boards and the glass ceiling that continues to face many. If you’re a CEO, tuning in to these and related concerns will help you avoid becoming the focus of the next wave of hashtag protests (and nightly newscasts). It will also help ensure you avoid the type of online reputation crisis that can impact your brand as well as your company’s stock valuation.