Who would have thought that Twitter would spark off an international debate about the role of women in society? Yet the signs have been there for some months. When Sandberg'sLean In was published this spring, commentators online reignited discussions about expectations of women, and how realistic it really is for them to make it to the boardroom. Over recent months in the UK, we have seen first the rise of Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3,then most recently a wave of prominent women drawing attention to the shocking rape and abuse threats they have received on Twitter, this last famously sparked by the threats received by Caroline Criado-Perez after her successful campaign to have women represented on banknotes.
A wider debate has now emerged about the role of women in society. 'Fourth wave feminism' questions whether men and women both have a subconscious misogyny, perhaps a blind spot about women's role in public life. Do we all assume women will shut up and sit back, rather than fighting for a space within public discourse?
But some wonder if this broader discussion is just the latest opportunity for the liberal media to do a bit of hand-wringing. Campaigners point out an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration from women; and we all know we haven't achieved equality in pay. But despite this, many people think ordinary women in society are basically... alright, aren't they? Do we have evidence that women in general, beyond the high-profile ones, feel sidelined, or feel that their legitimate concerns are ignored? Well yes, actually, we do.
Women are frustrated
A recent Ipsos MORI study shows that UK women feel men are 'more successful' in society as a whole. Men, they feel, have the clear lead in society overall (by a 46% to 5% margin), in business (63% to 2%) and in national politics (73% to 1%).
Are women just recognising historical inequalities? 85% of women also think that "men are often paid more than women, even for doing the same work". Not simply that women do the less well-paid jobs - we know that women's pay is on average 15% less, and they hold less than 1 in 3 top jobs. But more than this, women think men are still paid more for the same job, even after 40 years of equal pay legislation.
Why is this? Well, women do not think it is because they lack skills and abilities. In fact they're pretty bullish about what they can do. When talking about work, women are confident they are at least as good as men on a whole range of characteristics, including "having difficult conversations", "leading a team" and "using technology". These, it's worth pointing out, are increasingly important management skills for the modern office. They also feel assured that their educational achievements match those of men. Just over a quarter, in fact, feel they are more educationally successful than men are. And for younger women, this conviction is stronger - 31% of Generation Y (in their 20s) feel more educationally successful, as opposed to 25% of Boomers (those in their late 40s -60s).
A picture emerges of women who might well be somewhat narked. Elsewhere in the same survey we find these younger women don't think much of their work-life balance and only 30% are satisfied with their careers. Among those who are married/partnered, the women tend to earn less than their partners, even though they are overall better-educated.
Social media is the best place for shouting back
At the same time, women are online; in greater and greater numbers. Ipsos MORI's regular tech tracker shows nearly half of them own a smartphone (47% against 55% men) and, 24% own a tablet (the same number as men). They are more likely than men to use their mobile devices to access social network sites. More than half do this (51%, significantly higher than men). They are participating in more conversations. When they shop online, they spend a lot of time drawing in information resources, opinions from people they know and experts. Women are using the online world to achieve a constant flow of conversation. This must make it even more frustrating when these new, ostensibly equal, public spaces are co-opted by trolls.
So, we have uneasy undercurrents of dissatisfaction with equality in the public sphere, showing up on surveys; coupled with women feeling at home on social networks. It's easy to understand, then, why some women would respond with anger and outrage on social media, at what they see as a covert attempt to shut them down and prevent their equal ownership of the online sphere.
The other half of the picture is what men think about women's achievements and their own. Do men also believe they are 'more successful' in society? I suspect it might depend on how much money and influence they've got. We need a second study, looking at the range of male views - from the CEO in the boardroom to the unemployed man on his sofa.