The link between the 'visual web' and gender equality
A view from Sue Unerman

The link between the 'visual web' and gender equality

The dominance of the "visual web" may herald a new era in human communication.

Speaking at last month's Guardian Changing Media Summit, Nicola Mendelsohn of Facebook, who was described as the "most powerful media figure" in Europe, laid out the company's vision for an "immersive, visual-based web that makes communications easier in an increasingly frantic world".

According to Marketing, Mendelsohn claimed that the growth of "seemingly trivial communications such as cartoon stickers had serious implications for brands". Referring to the Despicable Me 2 sticker partnership, where Minions stickers were shared more than two billion times, she said "that's two billion instances of people using brands to express emotions with friends" and called them a modern version of hieroglyphics that crosses language and borders.

The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain would thoroughly approve that "the most powerful woman in Europe" was welcoming in a new era. An era that he has predicted in his book The Alphabet Versus The Goddess in 1998 – the year of Google's birth and just six years before Mark Zuckerberg gave us Facebook.

In Shlain's view, words are largely masculine and images feminine. His enthralling argument is that the advent of literacy reinforced the brain's analytical part. This part of the brain is linear, abstract and predominantly masculine. This was at the expense of other, older parts of the brain that are holistic, concrete, visual and feminine. This made the balance between men and women shift, initiating – thousands of years ago – the disappearance of goddess worship, the abhorrence of images, the decline of women's social and political status and "a long reign of patriarchy and misogyny".

It is certainly true that, for millennia, information and power were in the hands of the literate (or their masters) – who, for most of the past three thousand years, have been men. Only in the second half of the last century did television mean that you could know a broad range of topics without reading about them. Schlain says: "Since World War II, the technologies of information transfer have transformed the foundations of world culture and, in the process, helped it balance feminine and masculine. Iconic information proliferating through the use of television, computers… the internet has enhanced, and will continue to enhance, the positions in society of images, women's rights."

The new season of Mad Men opens with a vignette of just how seriously men in advertising took women in the 70s when Peggy and Joan get humiliated in a meeting by suits from the parent agency. At all of the conferences last month, a key question raised was the minority of women on stage. Fingers have been pointed this month at the 2015 Círculo Creativo Ideas Awards jury, which does not have a single female on it.

A panel without women might be the very definition of a first-world problem – it obviously pales into insignificance with continuing violence against women across the globe. But however you consider the situation in the developed world, there is still a long way to go. I hope Shlain and Mendelsohn are both right and that the visual web accelerates our innate positivity to reach gender equality.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom