Technology

How to combat sexism in 2017? With an app, of course.

search for solutions

Whistle, an app where users can document sexism in real time, is one of a growing number of digital tools to help address the problem.

A woman uses her iPhone 6 in Munich, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2016.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters/File | Caption

Want to call out a stranger, friend, or relative for a sexist comment or behavior? There's an app for that. 

Whistle, a new service from the team behind the for-women workplace ratings website InHerSight, asks users to document instances of everyday sexism in real time. Since the app's launch last month, hundreds of women have taken to Whistle to log their experiences under categories ranging from sexual harassment to condescension to "boy's club behavior." 

The app is the latest in a growing number of websites, social media hashtags, and other online spaces where women can call attention to instances of real-life sexism, including the Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback, a site for women to share stories of street harassment. Like similar platforms, Whistle aims to "build more awareness of what women are experiencing everyday and find ways to engage more people in the conversation" by serving as an "entry point for talking about everyday sexism," says Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of Whistle and InHerSight. But by analyzing data collected by the app, Ms. Mead and her team also hope to achieve a clearer, quantifiable understanding of what sexism looks like in 2017 – and how to stop it. 

"There’s a lot of talk about it, but I think what we need to make more progress toward eradicating it from society is to understand it better," Mead tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "What do women perceive to be sexism? What are the [kinds of sexism] they're experiencing? Where are they experiencing them? It's very hard to build solutions without understanding the problem."

To better quantify how and where sexism is occurring, "whistles" on the app are sorted in possible categories – sexual harassment, discrimination, boys' club behavior, double standards, stereotypes, objectification, crudeness, mansplaining, condescension, or other – and settings: work, public, home, school, online, and media. 

These categories could provide researchers with a clearer idea of where to look for solutions, Mead explains. If the majority of whistles are happening at work, for example, "we'll be able to have a more powerful conversation about what types of training and initiatives need to happen in the workplace." 

While Whistle is the first platform built for the purpose of collecting data on sexism, other platforms have proven useful in similar ways. In 2015, researchers based at the Oxford Internet Institute ran natural language processing algorithms and topic modeling techniques on data reported to the Everyday Sexism Project to create "the first data-driven map of sexism on a global scale," with the goal of creating "practical definitions of sexism and how it appears in different cultures." 

"The striking thing was that sexism was so close to us; it’s something very common," Taha Yasseri, a computer scientist working on the project, told Vice's Motherboard. "What I found fascinating was how easily this project could bring this very important issue to the public’s attention." 

Beyond their potential for research, the mere existence of platforms like Whistle can lead to societal change, say gender studies researchers. 

In recent years, online technologies have grown increasingly integrated into women's everyday lives and "[lowered] the barrier to participation in feminist politics in important ways," Jessalynn Keller, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary and author of "Girls' Feminist Blogging in a Postfeminist Age," tells the Monitor in an email. "Sexism of course isn’t new, but the availability of these technologies now allow girls and women to document and discuss sexism and connect with one another in a way that is widely visible." 

For example, Professor Keller says, a girl living in a rural location may previously have been unable to participate in a feminist march or other in-person activist gathering. Today, that girl can easily log into a social media website from her bedroom and contribute to a feminist hashtag. 

Online spaces for reporting sexism "offer opportunities for mutual support, education, and awareness," as well as "catharsis, relief, and even humor," says Shira Tarrant, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach, in an email to the Monitor. "They send an important political and cultural message that sexism in everyday life is unacceptable and it will be called out. This helps raise the bar in terms of interpersonal relationships, workplace norms, how people engage with each other on the streets … and even our own expectations about what it means to be treated well." 

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office following a campaign bedeviled by accusations of sexual assault and misogynistic comments, Keller says she expects a continuation of online efforts to raise awareness of sexism in the coming year. It's true, she acknowledges, that most readers of apps and websites like Whistle or The Everyday Sexism Project are women. But, experts say, there are numerous ways for users to take the discussion outside the feminist "bubble." 

"There are so many possibilities for expanding these conversations in ways large and small," says Professor Tarrant, citing social media, education, pop culture, and political policy as potential avenues for spreading awareness. "Especially at this political juncture, it will be crucial that we all step up."