Why are women dominating the online petition world?

Of course not every petition is successful, but the days of dismissing online petitions as useless 'slacktivism' are ...

Of course not every petition is successful, but the days of dismissing online petitions as useless 'slacktivism' are surely over. Photo: Stocksy

When 14-year-old Josie Pohla sat down at her grandmother's computer in April this year, mere weeks after her mother had taken her life after prolonged domestic abuse, she wrote a raw and heartfelt plea to the NSW government to ensure children are educated about domestic violence. So they might be able to help break the cycle that so many children find themselves in without understanding what is happening.

Her Change.org petition (posted under the pseudonym 'Rachel') not only struck an emotional chord - it made a lot of sense; thus spreading like wildfire amongst activists and concerned individuals online. Within the space of just three months, and with more than 100,000 signatures, the NSW government granted Josie's wish, announcing it would be introducing domestic violence education to the curriculum as part of the Personal Development syllabus from the first term of 2016. 

For that to happen in just a few months off the back of a petition started by a teenager - who otherwise would have had no way to be heard - is huge. It's an extraordinary demonstration of the very real power that online social activism can wield to bring about change. And yet, while it's tempting to assume petitions rarely make a difference, this example is far from alone. In terms of signature numbers, Josie's petition was ranked fourth by Change.org among its top victorious petitions of 2015. 

Josie Pohla, the teenager who successfully lobbied the NSW government through an online petition.

Josie Pohla, the teenager who successfully lobbied the NSW government through an online petition. Photo: Supplied

The head of Change.org Australia, Nathan Elvery, says petitions are "triumphing on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago; a petition now wins every 24 hours in Australia". 

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Of course many worthy causes fail to attract the attention they need to cut through the online noise, but even so - the days of dismissing online petitions as useless 'slacktivism' are surely over. 

But aside from the growing success of these petitions, there's something else that's interesting about the numbers. 

In crunching its stats for 2015, Change.org noticed that not only is its membership base majority female (60 per cent) but the most successful petitions are also, more often than not, started by women. 

Of the 34 victorious petitions with more than 10,000 signatures, 20 were started by women - and nine specifically addressed issues of gender and women's rights. These included - along with Josie's - a petition from a survivor of gang rape to reinstate compensation for victims of crime, a call to reject Floyd Mayweather's visa on grounds of domestic violence, the petition to ban the sale of Zoo Weekly at Woolworths and Coles, the petition calling on Facebook to reinstate Clementine Ford's account after it was suspended when she shared abuse she had received, and a petition to bring raped asylum seeker Nazanin to Australia for medical treatment - to name a few. 

Women have always signed petitions at a higher rate than men - and - according to The Conversationresearchers previously assumed this was because they were more likely to be home when doorknockers arrived. But now that petitions are increasingly circulated online this theory doesn't hold, as men and women use the internet and social media in equal amounts. Yet women still dominate online petitions. 

Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi - who's started a few petitions herself - thinks it's more likely to do with how women, despite high levels of education and social/political engagement, are nevertheless disadvantaged through sexism and lack of representation in the halls of power. 

"Women are disproportionately affected by issues of injustice, so they are more likely to speak out about them and online petitions do provide an easily accessible platform with a global reach," she says. 

"In the last few years, we have seen Australia moving backwards on gender equality with a record high gender pay gap, epidemic proportions of violence against women and the lowest number of women in the Upper House of NSW parliament since 1981. Women are rightly saying enough is enough, things need to change and we will take charge in creating this change."

Petitions are no substitute for women's equal representation in politics and on boards. But while we wait for - and work towards - equality, women are using all the tools at our disposal to be heard and bring about change.