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The digital gender divide and ending violence against women online.

The events that took place last week – international women’s day, mourning the murder of Sarah Everard, police brutality against women at her vigil, the proposal for increased police powers to silence protesters, racism towards Megan Markle, and mothering Sunday – reminded me of just how divided and unequal our society is… How unapologetically sexist and discriminatory some men can be and how this has infiltrated into most areas of women’s public and private lives.

I wanted to reflect on this in terms of the treatment of women in the online world and so I attended the ‘Digital Gender Gaps and Opportunities’ event hosted and organised by the Council of Europe.

The first thing noted at the event, as thousands of women from around the world joined, was just how privileged and fortunate we women were to access the conversation online – to have the time to listen and participate. Many women do not have that opportunity.

Online spaces and digital interconnectivity have been growing exponentially since the 90s when the internet was first launched and the tech industry took off. With this new era in information technology, and with the creation of social media  and smartphones, our social and behavioural landscapes have been transformed.

Being represented online is now considered essential to build relationships, find jobs and to not suffer drawbacks in professional settings.

However, the benefits provided by the digital age are not experienced by many women and other marginalised groups in society. The online world has assumed patriarchal and white supremist values that exist in the real world; it reflects the inequalities already sewn into wider socio-economic structures both locally and internationally.

For example, there has traditionally been a lack of women represented in the media industry, in television and film, in the music scene (2019 was the first year there had been equal male and female acts signed for Glastonbury Festival), and now on social media.

Young female influencers mostly work within the cosmetic and fashion industry, rendering their ‘role’ online as one based on looks, rather than providing them opportunities to earn money in promoting technologies, games and science as men have.

This pushes many women off social media if they do not want to see or conform to hegemonic images of femininity and masculinity. 

The digital divide has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as with many other pre-existing social inequalities which EarthRights discussed in Episode 8 with Dr Sridhar Venkatapurm.

The digital world took a leap of faith during the pandemic; much of what we do in terms of work, socialising, politics and activism has had to be pursued via online spaces. Alarmingly though, this means discrimination against women online exists as a continuum of discrimination offline.

Glitch, a charity working to make the online space safe for all, reported that there has been a 46% increase in online abuse experienced by women over the pandemic and a 50% increase among females from ethnic minority groups.

Yet only 12% of the women surveyed were actually given any guidance and advice about how to protect themselves.


Manifestations of discrimination against women digitally

Digital discrimination against women comes in many forms: cyber harassment and violence online, body shaming, being sent explicit content, being racially, ethnically or sexually profiled by AI which can impact the victim’s employment and private life, and the systemic subjugation of women offline means that their access to online resources, education and jobs is inhibited.

1 in 10 women residing in the European Union report having experienced cyber harassment and violence since the age of 15. This can lead to women retreating from the digital space and remaining silent on matters they should speak out about, such as politics and social justice.

The issue with AI and algorithms, which are often used to decide who to employ or promote at work or who to profile during criminal investigations, is that they have been designed and run by men, particularly white men. 

Not only do these automated processes run the risk of reproducing and consolidating discrimination against women, especially those from ethnic minorities, but they also run the risk of intensifying the discrimination.

Think about it, even those who are trying to expose the automated biases in the technologies and advocate for the processes to be changed, like Timnit Gebru, former AI ethicist at Google, have been silenced or harassed. This has a chilling effect on female participation in public life.

Timnit is an inspiring and incredible woman, born in Ethiopia in 1982/3 but moved to the U.S. where she was granted asylum, she has gained an education in electronic engineering and became a computer scientist and ethicist.

Her career has focused on algorithmic bias and data mining – for example, she developed signal processing algorithms for Apple’s first iPad.

She is an advocate for diversity in technology and co-founder of Black in AI, a community of black researchers working in artificial intelligence.

Her work has been groundbreaking in the field of AI, semantics and human rights. She co-authored a paper that showed how facial recognition was less accurate at identifying women and people of colour, meaning AI’s use can be used to discriminate against them. 

However, her important advocacy work was met with backlash from Google in December 2020 – she was let go after her unpublished paper on the dangers of large language models that power Google’s search engine was met fierce criticism from its chief executives.

This shows how even when women are given positions where they can make important changes and decisions, they still often face harassment and abuse.

Ethicists, like Timnit, are employed to rectify technological issues of bias and discrimination against women and minority groups, yet are penalised for just doing their job…

The work of lawyers, researchers and activists in this field inspired me in my final year of law to research the social and human rights issues associated with the bulk collection and processing of citizen’s private data. If you are interested in reading my paper, please contact EarthRights here.

Moreover, the digital divide is manifested in terms of the kinds of occupations and employment roles that women take up.

Those women able to find a job in IT (only 20% of IT roles are in fact taken up by women) not only face trying to fit into an inherently masculine environment, but also face little prospect of changing the tech industry’s culture because very few are offered management positions with the power to make changes.

Otherwise, most women lack the time due to childcare, non-digital jobs and other duties to access the online world and its resources, creating a huge chasm in non-tech sector employment opportunities for them. 

It has also had a chilling effect on women exercising their civil and political rights online, such as freedom of expression, excluding them from the political process. In fact, many women are shrinking away from politics and public participation because they are frightened to be abused as quickly as they are when they publish their views online.

And, unsurprisingly, it has negatively impacted their mental and physical well being.

If the digital age continues to be regulated and designed predominantly around men, then digitalisation can only truly revolutionise and benefit that gender only, propelling their successes economically and politically.

If women continue to be excluded from tech conversations going forward then digital discrimination and violence against women and other minority groups online will persist.


How can we get to a gender equal digital age?

There have been missing conversations about social norms and etiquette online meaning women continue to feel unsafe and unsupported in the digital world.

One of the amazing speakers at the ‘Digital Gender Gaps and Opportunities’ was Seyi Akiwowo, an activist who set up Glitch, and she made some fundamental and inspiring suggestions about what digital equality conversations should look like.

She emphasised that conversations about digital discrimination, online sexism and abuse must involve EVERYONE. Therefore, looking through an intersectional lens is essential. Her main points were as follows:

Digital education for all women

  • Promote and teach women about how to counter abuse online with tech support tools: online counselling, text messaging services, safe spaces
  • Free education needs to be provided by tech companies to women in rural areas, women in marginalised groups
  • Education must be provided in all working languages so that migrant women and refugees are not left behind
  • Ensure that women with disabilities can access tech – provide, for example, screen readers for women without sight

Conceptualise digital citizenship

  • Define what our rights and responsibilities are online
  • Educate the population on digital citizenship – users need to know how to diffuse a situation of online abuse or harassment in the same way we are encouraged to do so in public spaces offline, like on public transport.

Freedom of expression and participation

  • Online spaces are platforms for politics and activist movements so more regulation needs to be put in place for people to feel safe to express their views

Big tech companies – enforce private sector participation

  • Tech companies need to be held to a duty of care towards all women – this requires research into the patterns of online abuse and online access barriers so that the best form of regulation can be put in place
  • We need social media companies to publish how many complaints there have been of sexual abuse and harrasment – burden of reporting needs to be there in order to compel social media companies to change their practices
  • Whilst tech companies in the UK are now taxed, none of the money goes to preventing online abuse…
  • More women need to be employed in tech companies and be able to reach management positions — this can help to direct policy and practices involving AI and eliminating algorithmic bias

Access to justice

  • Establish complaint procedures and punish perpetrators of abuse, sexism and discrimination in the same way online as offline — the Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe) requires member states (47) to introduce criminal sanctions that reflect the seriousness of perpetrating online abuse and reflect that the online space is NOT a place of impunity
  • But we do need to think about the best sanctions for online crimes – prison is not generally going to be a long-term solution because it will make these people less likely to get jobs in the future


Addressing the impact of online sexism and abuse  –  what can you do as a woman?

1. If you can, research and educate yourself on what online harassment looks like so that you can identify and help others to identify when you are being harassed or abused.

2. Try not to read hate messages and abusive messages, because as soon as you do, all of the inspiring and motivating ones will become quickly redundant.

3. If you are capable of being publicly active against online abuse, then be a role model rather than shrinking away from the spotlight because that is the point of the abuse – to shrink the power and presence of women online.

What can you do as a man?

The role of men in helping to combat discrimination has come up a lot in the last few days since the murder of Sarah Everard in Clapham. Exasperatingly, #notallmen started trending meaning that women were once again silenced!

Mine and Pippa’s advice from EarthRights to men is:

  • EDUCATE YOURSELF – want to know what’s up with this male-dominated world and how we got here? … Listen to this fantastic podcast series: MEN by SceneOnRadio
  • SILENCE IS COMPLIANCE – get active and stand up against sexism and discrimination publicly online
  • If you’re an employer, DO NOT ASK questions such as “when will you have a child?”
  • NEVER say “You’re lucky to have a job as a woman” or “Don’t dream too big, you’re a woman”

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Melanie Désert

Co-founder and Co-producer