Women at the Front: Gender Equality in the Digital Age

On Tuesday, I joined experts from the Brookings Institution, the World Bank, and fashionABLE at Google's Washington, DC offices for an important conversation that would not have been possible just ten years ago.

The topic? Economic empowerment of women living in poverty. The technology? A Google+ Hangout hosted by the ONE Campaign's Girls and Women Initiative. Jina Moore, Buzzfeed's International Women's Rights correspondent, moderated the discussion all the way from Kenya.

For an hour, we discussed women and poverty from connections in DC, Africa, and California in front of an audience of Googlers, YouTubers, advocates, and every day Internet users from around the world.

And all the while, hundreds of millions of women in developing countries worked in fields harvesting produce to sell, set up shop in town markets, or met with other women to form economic cooperatives. For many of these women, a computer -- or even the electricity to power a computer -- is a far-flung wish.

Yet, the insights from Tuesday's online conversation may well provide the seeds of advocacy to improve opportunities for women and girls around the world -- and the venue for the discussion tells us something important about the direction of advocacy for gender equality.

First, the issues. Our conversation shed light on some of the most significant barriers to women's economic opportunity, many of which -- on the surface -- do not seem to be about gender at all.

A lack of roads, for example, hinders the ability of female business owners to access markets another town away. Reliable power is needed for businesses to build factories that employ women. And unscrupulous market buyers can cheat women and men alike if they lack the legal or regulatory means to make sure they are paid fairly for their products or labor.

Don't get me wrong. More explicit discrimination is very much a reality around much of the world.

As Edith Jibunhoh of the World Bank noted in the conversation, more than 100 countries worldwide have policies that in some way limit women's economic participation. And, as Brookings Scholar Relebohile Moletsane of South Africa explained, laws and policies alone do not guarantee gender equality.

A broader social, political, and cultural shift is necessary. Poverty is, after all, fundamentally about a lack of power. Organizing online as we did for Tuesday's conversation is one important tactic to address the power problem.

Last month, Time columnist Jessica Bennett noted that women are "bypassing the gatekeepers, simply by sheer mass -- forcing attention on the issues they deem important." Jeff Martin, CEO and Founder of Tribal Planet, sounded a similar note at last month's +SocialGood summit:

"Social media is forcing traditional media to address these issues for women and girls."

Emma Watson's moving speech last week launching UN Women's HeForShe campaign spurred women and men around the planet to take up the call for global gender equality.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign this spring did something similar and is widely credited with helping to spur international commitments to assist in the rescue the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram.

But digital organizing has its limits. More than five months since they were stolen in the dead of night, most of the Nigerian schoolgirls remain in captivity threatened with forced marriage and sexual violence.

If we want a freer, safer, and fairer world for women and girls, our organizing must not only be about celebrity endorsements, convening conversations among experts, or casual activism on social media. The voices of actual women living in poverty and violence must be heard and their insights must translate to policies, programs, and practices that promote real change.

Women Thrive Worldwide and others work hard to ensure that it is women in poverty themselves, and not just connected activists or experts, whose voices are represented.

I have dedicated my life to amplifying the voices of women and girls around the world. But I am constantly reminded that one person cannot carry an entire movement.

It's only by lifting up all voices in support of women -- and using all tools at our disposal -- that we will finally realize a better world for hundreds of millions women and girls.