Obstacles Facing Women in Technology and Initiatives towards a Feminist Internet

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Social issues are reflected into cyberspace, and their impact and scale become deeper and wider in the case of issues rooted in societies. With the spread of issues such as misogynistic, discriminatory speech, anti-women and LGBTQI+ speech, these problems have found their way into cyberspace as well. So, activists started working to maximize their capacity to address this type of discourse, placing issues related to feminism and LGBTQI+ people as an integral part of cyberspace.

What is a feminist internet?

Feminist internet starts from the point of enabling more women and LGBTQI+ people to access egalitarian and affordable Internet services, as well as enabling them to create, design, and use technologies to counter gender-based discrimination. The feminist internet is also a cyberspace that allows harnessing technology to convey the realities of life for women and LGBTQI+ people around the world, ensuring freedom of gender and sexual expression, as well as taking seriously the issue of violence against women and queer people on the Internet and working to find solutions to it.

Why do we need a feminist internet?

Cyberspace has not been a friendly space for girls and women since its emergence in the early nineties of the last century. The louder the women’s voices became, the higher the rate of abuse they are subjected to. Some researches suggest that women are three times more likely to receive derogatory comments about their gender on social media than their male counterparts, and girls are also more targeted than boys.

The violence women are subjected to online has not only been a human product but, increasingly, it is also being perpetrated through using bots. Some of these bots perform tasks such as fixing links, removing vandalism, and tagging articles on Wikipedia. However, like any technology, bots can be biased, as their software methodologies can lead to discriminating practices.

Bots currently generate about half of the web traffic, and social media bots, which are fake accounts that mimic real users, generate an increasing amount of content on these platforms. It is assumed that about 15% of active accounts on Twitter are in fact bots. Unlike humans, bots do not need to rest, and therefore they have the ability to post content around the clock by placing likes and tweets or publishing posts and comments using an API, which may distort public discussion by flooding social media websites with hate speech, violence, and abuse.

Many social media bots are programmed using simple algorithms based on simple phrases such as “since, so”, meaning that if the bot identifies a relevant topic, it will post the content it was pre-programmed to.

Bots are able to find relevant topics through simple keyword searches and scanning the tweets or Facebook posts to find specific expressions or hashtags, then post pre-written texts as data or attempt to steer the discussion in a specific direction.

The problem with social media bots also lies in their ability to copy and replicate the pattern of real users on these platforms. For example, a research issued by the Pew Internet Research Center indicated that Microsoft tried to train bots to respond to young people on Twitter, but these bots began to repeat hate speech and reproduce discrimination based on gender or race because it copies the behavior of real people.

With the increasing number of bots producing content on the Internet, we must question the identity of their programmers, because the technology sector is still dominated by men, which affects the jobs that bots are programmed to do and the problems they can solve – or create.

Hence, comes the need for a cyberspace created by diverse groups, based on gender equality in its structure and operations. Cyberspace where girls, women, marginalized groups, and minorities can exercise their freedom of expression without being harassed. The lack of diversity in technology limits the positive role the Internet can play on issues such as equality, discrimination, violence against women, and homophobic speech. To achieve this, there is a need to create opportunities for women and queer people in the technology sector, so that they can participate in determining how the Internet and technology work.

Social media platforms also need to improve their reporting and handling of abuse incidents, so that women and queer people can safely create and publish content that represents their views and needs. These platforms should put the rights and safety of all users before profits, by banning bots that create an unsafe and hostile environment for women and queer people.

Every few months, social media platforms declare that they have removed more than a billion fake accounts from their websites. During the first nine months of 2020, Facebook banned 4.5 billion accounts, and more than 99% of these accounts were determined even before users report them. Most of these accounts are bots that have been used for several years to maximize the reach of certain posts or topics to users in a fake way. Despite the removal of billions of fake accounts, Facebook estimates the number of fake accounts at more than 90 million, or 5% of the number of accounts on the website, a percentage that has not changed since 2019.

Last year, “Instagram” decided to take strict measures to limit the presence of bots on the platform. The measures included requesting a personal verification issued by a government agency from users with accounts that show “unauthentic behavior”, in order to ensure that these accounts belong to real people.

As for Twitter, it continues to pursue bots that violate its privacy policies, however, identifying and eliminating bots will not work 100%, as some of them can pass through the loopholes. As long as the website settings allow the presence of bots, they will not be permanently eliminated.

Obstacles women face while using technology or when participating in cyberspace

The obstacles facing women and queer people in the technology field start with the difficulty of accessing Internet services, as the latest statistics (January 2021) show that about 40% of the world’s population is unable to access the Internet, most of them are women and girls. Countries with access to the Internet often have societal bias, which leads to higher numbers of male Internet users than females.

Lack of access to the Internet necessarily means a lack of up-to-date information, particularly on sexual and reproductive health and rights, sexual pleasure, safe abortion, access to justice, and LGBTQI+ issues. Lack of information also increases the difficulty of launching a debate on equality issues. A research published on the Web Index shows that in the majority of countries, women cannot easily access information about their legal rights, reproductive and sexual health services, and services available to victims of gender-based violence, on online platforms.

Local economies can be one of the barriers to Internet access. In many countries, there is still a problem of Internet providers monopolizing the service without competition. With the capitalist system driving the technology sector towards profit only, it ignores the societal benefits that can result from increased access to the Internet. The cost of software is also a barrier to Internet access, which is why the feminist internet relies on free/open source software (also known as FLOSS), that gives everyone equal platforms for programming and content creation.

Another obstacle is the under-representation of women in the technology sector. Globally, women make up to only a quarter of researchers, they represent 12% of engineers, while in the UK, women represent only 27% of the digital sector workforce, a percentage that is declining. It is likely that the reason for the low representation of women in the field of technology is the high rate of women dropping out of university studies due to stereotypes, the dominance of men in the technology and information sector, and the industry’s lack of policies to include women.

Finally, women all over the world suffer from hatred, violence, harassment, and defamation by publishing materials containing their personal or private information, which makes cyberspace an unsafe space for women and hinders their effective participation in it.

Statistics on the gender gap in cyberspace

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than 50% of the world’s women are not connected to the Internet. The Internet access rate for adult women is 41%, compared to 53% for men, meaning that the gender gap in Internet access is 12%.

In less developed countries, only 15% of women had access to the Internet in 2019, compared to 86% in developed countries. The Global System for Mobile Communications found that 393 million adult women in developing countries do not own a mobile phone, and globally, women are 8% less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

There are statistics indicating a similar pattern of difficulty in accessing and using the Internet for girls just as it is for women; girls aged between 15 and 19 are less likely to use the Internet than males of the same age group, and they are less likely to have mobile phones.

Another study, conducted by Girl Effect and Vodafone, found that boys are 1.5 times more likely than girls to own a mobile phone, and 1.8 times more likely than girls to own a smartphone. More than half (52%) of girls borrow phones if they need to connect to the Internet, compared to 28% of boys.

During the period from 2013 to 2019, the online gender gap hovered around zero in the Americas and was narrowing in the CIS and Europe. But it has, however, been expanding in Arab countries, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, where most of the new Internet users since 2013 were men.

The gender gap in participation in some STEM fields is widening in countries where there is a relatively small gender gap in Internet access. According to UNESCO, only 30% of the world’s academic researchers are females, while they represent less than a third of students enrolled in higher education who choose to study fields such as mathematics and engineering.

Women make up a smaller proportion of the workforce at the 11 largest tech giants in the United States, according to diversity reports published by those companies. Uber, Twitter, and Microsoft are at the bottom of the list, where women, on average, occupy only roughly 19% of tech roles in these companies. Although there is a narrow gender pay gap in technology, compared to other industries, there is still a gap between what women earn compared to men even when doing the same job at the same company.

According to a 2019 report published by Hired.com, women working in technical positions are paid 8% less than men, and less represented by 4% in product management positions. This is in addition to the fact that only 11% of women in Silicon Valley hold leadership positions, according to data from the law firm Fenwick & West published in 2014.

According to the National Institute for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), 56% of women drop out of their tech jobs mid-career. Only 8% of women own technology-related patents, which significantly influences the number of women-led innovations brought to market, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Principles of the feminist internet

In April 2014, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) held a meeting in Malaysia on the feminist internet, bringing together 50 activists and advocates for sexual rights, women’s rights, and digital rights. They formulated a set of principles for a gender perspective on digital rights.

During the meeting, female volunteers drafted version 1.0 of the principles, which were presented in different workshops and events. Also, the principles were presented during the second Internet meeting in July 2015, where a new group of activists discussed, reviewed, and endorsed the principles. The new version was published online on feministinternet.org in August 2016, and anyone can share or translate the resources.

There are currently a total of 17 published principles, organized into 5 groups: Internet Access, Feminist Movements, Economy, Expression, and Embodiment. Taken together, the principles aim to provide a framework for women’s movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology.

The feminist internet aims at empowering more women and queer people to fully enjoy their rights, share the fun, and dismantle the patriarchal system. Ultimately it seeks to integrate different individuals’ realities, contexts, and idiosyncrasies, including age, disabilities, gender, identities and expressions, social and economic classes, political and religious beliefs, and ethnic origins.

As for the second version of feminist internet principles, it is as follows;

Access

  1. Internet Connection

A feminist internet starts with enabling more women and queer persons to enjoy universal, acceptable, affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful, and equal access to the internet.

 

  1. Access to Information

We support and protect unrestricted access to information relevant to women and queer persons, particularly information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, pleasure, safe abortion, access to justice, and LGBTQI issues. This includes diversity in languages, abilities, interests, and contexts.

 

  1. Use of Technology

Women and queer persons have the right to code, design, adapt, and critically and sustainably use ICTs and reclaim technology as a platform for creativity and expression, as well as to challenge the cultures of sexism and discrimination in all spaces.

 

Movements

  1. Resistance

The internet is a space where social norms are negotiated, performed, and imposed, often in an extension of other spaces shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity. Our struggle for a feminist internet is one that forms part of a continuum of our resistance in other spaces, public, private and in-between.

 

  1. Movement Building

The internet is a transformative political space. It facilitates new forms of citizenship that enable individuals to claim, construct and express selves, genders, and sexualities. This includes connecting across territories, demanding accountability and transparency, and creating opportunities for sustained feminist movement building.

 

  1. Governance

We believe in challenging the patriarchal spaces and processes that control internet governance, as well as putting more feminists and queers at the decision-making tables. We want to democratize policy making affecting the Internet, as well as diffuse ownership of and power in global and local networks.

 

Economy

  1. Alternative Economies

We are committed to interrogating the capitalist logic that drives technology towards further privatization, profit, and corporate control. We work to create alternative forms of economic power that are grounded in principles of cooperation, solidarity, commons, environmental sustainability, and openness.

 

  1. Open Source

We are committed to creating and experimenting with technology, including digital safety and security, and using free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), tools, and platforms. Promoting, disseminating, and sharing knowledge about the use of FLOSS is central to our praxis.

 

Expression

  1. Amplify

We claim the power of the internet to amplify women’s narratives and lived realities. There is a need to resist the state, the religious right, and other extremist forces who monopolize discourses of morality while silencing feminist voices and persecuting women’s human rights defenders.

 

  1. Expression

We defend the right to sexual expression as a freedom of expression issue of no less importance than political or religious expression. We strongly object to the efforts of state and non-state actors to control, surveil, regulate and restrict feminist and queer expression on the internet through technology, legislation, or violence. We recognize this as part of the larger political project of moral policing, censorship, and hierarchization of citizenship and rights.

 

  1. Pornography

We recognize that the issue of pornography online has to do with agency, consent, power, and labor. We reject simple causal linkages made between consumption of pornographic content and violence against women. We also reject the use of the umbrella term “harmful content” to label expression on female and transgender sexuality. We support reclaiming and creating alternative erotic content that resists the mainstream patriarchal gaze and locates women and queer persons’ desires at the center.

 

Embodiment

  1. Consent

We call on the need to build an ethics and politics of consent into the culture, design, policies, and terms of service of internet platforms. Women’s agency lies in their ability to make informed decisions on what aspects of their public or private lives to share online.

 

  1. Privacy and Data

We support the right to privacy and to full control over personal data and information online at all levels. We reject practices by states and private companies to use data for profit and to manipulate behavior online. Surveillance is the historical tool of patriarchy, used to control and restrict women’s bodies, speech, and activism. We pay equal attention to surveillance practices by individuals, the private sector, the state, and non-state actors.

 

  1. Memory

We have the right to exercise and retain control over our personal history and memory on the internet. This includes being able to access all our personal data and information online and to be able to exercise control over this data, including knowing who has access to it and under what conditions, and the ability to delete it forever.

 

  1. Anonymity

We defend the right to be anonymous and reject all claims to restrict anonymity online. Anonymity enables our freedom of expression online, particularly when it comes to breaking taboos of sexuality and heteronormativity, experimenting with gender identity, and enabling safety for women and queer persons affected by discrimination.

 

  1. Children

We call for the inclusion of the voices and experiences of young people in the decisions made about safety and security online and promote their safety, privacy, and access to information. We recognize children’s right to healthy emotional and sexual development, which includes the right to privacy and access to positive information about sex, gender, and sexuality at critical times in their lives.

 

  1. Violence

We call on all internet stakeholders, including internet users, policy makers, and the private sector, to address the issue of online harassment and technology-related violence. The attacks, threats, intimidation, and policing experienced by women and queers are real, harmful and alarming, and are part of the broader issue of gender-based violence. It is our collective responsibility to address and end this.

 

Initiatives to create a feminist internet

A youth initiative supported by the Regional Office of the United Nations for Women in the Arab States (ROAS). It aims to produce and disseminate knowledge about women’s lives and the injustices they face and hinder their progress, enabling societies to understand problems related to gender inequality and find solutions to them.

“Her Story” is concerned with recording human experiences from a feminist perspective, in order to emphasize the role that women have played and can play in fields such as history, politics, science, technology, and others. Thus, it addresses the absence and exclusion of women from historical records over the centuries, which has negatively affected women’s participation in these fields. Recognizing the contribution of women throughout history can challenge the current stereotypes about women and provide positive role models for girls and boys.

“Her Story” started in 2016, when the United Nations Regional Office launched the initiative in cooperation with “Wikimedia”, “Empower Women”, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and a group of volunteers. The overall objective of the initiative was to promote and increase content related to women and gender equality on Wikipedia, to raise awareness and bridge the gender knowledge gap.

Since the initiative was launched, more than 500 volunteer editors, have edited more than 2,000 articles on Arabic Wikipedia during a series of workshops or Editathons. During the workshops, the initiative team trained female and male volunteers to research, edit, translate, and upload articles on topics such as prominent women and gender issues on Arabic Wikipedia.

“Her Story” chose Wikipedia in particular for being the 6th most visited website on the Internet, and there are more than 1,796,235 websites that share links of pages from Wikipedia. So, the emergence of cross-source interactive information may help bridge the gender knowledge gap. For example, on January 20, 2018, the number of articles on women’s issues on Arabic Wikipedia reached 23,676, representing only 4.2% of all articles on the website, while the global gap is 15%. Thus, Wikipedia can be a useful vessel for bolstering the amount of knowledge about women, their accomplishments, and gender inequality.

A guide to digital security from a gender perspective, which aims to provide trainers with a set of tools that provide learning experiences for women human rights defenders and journalists working in high-risk environments.

The CyberWomen is a digital security guide from a gender-sensitive perspective. It is intended to provide male and female trainers with tools that foster learning experiences for human rights defenders and journalists who work in high-risk environments. It serves both trainers and trainees who wish to learn about digital protection with the inclusion of gender considerations. Furthermore, it consists of training modules, interactive games, and recommendations for training evaluation, in addition to audio-visual and graphic materials as teaching aids.

The Institute for War and Peace Press (IWPR) built and launched CyberWomen with the aim of introducing technical practices developed by women human rights defenders working in digital security training to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The CyberWomen guide provides a comprehensive view of the principle of safety for WHRDs, including digital security, physical security, and self-care, but it focuses primarily on digital security. In order to incorporate a more gender-sensitive approach, the guide was built based on a set of basic principles and values that CyberWomen recommends taking into consideration when planning training workshops, namely:

  1. The guide is specifically designed for female trainers who work with women as participants, so that trainees view the workshops as safe spaces in which they can share their fears and doubts and interact with others. CyberWomen also encourages male trainers to review the guide and its founding principles to better adapt their training practices to work with mixed groups.
  2. Throughout the training process, the guide focuses on raising awareness about online violence against women human rights defenders. First, by highlighting the differences between attacks on male and female activists. Then by providing examples of gender-based violence online as a way to help women identify the violence they may actually encounter in these spaces.
  3. The core ideas, information, and basic practices in the CyberWomen guide are based on promoting digital independence. “Strategic Thinking about Digital Security” is a key element of the guide, which appears in sharing digital security concepts with participants, rather than limiting the training to a list of tools. A large part of the training is devoted to introducing participants to digital security concepts such as encryption, anonymity, privacy, and open source software, prior to training on related tools. This way, women can make their own decisions about which tools are best for them to develop a personal understanding of these concepts and provide them with the necessary information.
  4. The guide considers psychological safety and self-care an essential component of the security of women human rights defenders. So, it provides a set of sessions aimed at helping participants to be prepared for and repel digital attacks, by providing information on how to identify and explore various digital self-defense strategies. These strategies include separating the private from the public space, creating online identities, accessing the personal information of harassers or trolls, encrypting communications, and documenting digital incidents. This happens by providing participants with a better understanding of the digital environment on the platforms they use, and the risks associated with each of them. Hence, participants can develop habits for strong digital security that can in turn become part of a more comprehensive practice of self-care.

 

An initiative that focuses primarily on digital security and technology to increase opportunities for girls and women in this field. The initiative provides technical education, mentoring and networking opportunities, and the development of leadership skills.

WIT targets women at all levels of the technology field, from school-age girls to female CEOs. The initiative aims to empower women and increase the number of females in leadership positions, as well as educate them and provide a networking environment to network and learn from each other. The initiative provides online training materials and individual education programs, in addition to the organized events it holds.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), through its Women’s Rights Program, works to enhance the ability of women movements to gain confidence, skills, and resources to influence Internet use, development, and decision-making. So that, they can engage in it as a political space to challenge discriminatory norms and practices and stereotypes. They also can use it to highlight their work for women’s rights and gender equality and to confront the obstacles that prevent them from benefiting from ICT.

The work of WRP stems from the recognition of the tremendous potential of technology and communications to promote social, political, cultural, and economic development, and to advance the rights of women and girls. Technology is a powerful platform for expressing, accessing information, and creating and sharing stories that can lead to changing discriminatory norms and values. The program works around 4 interrelated strategies: knowledge building, capacity building, political advocacy campaigns, and movement building.

It is an online edition (through Medium platform) and a Facebook group for women in tech. The publication shares positive stories to shed the light on women in tech.

The content produced by “Code Like A Girl” focuses primarily on women’s work in technology, and provides credible readings for those who are interested in the field. Topics covered by the initiative include female role models in technology, coding, troubleshooting, and advice on teaching coding for children. The initiative offers materials that help people to bridge the gender gap.

The Code Like a Girl team’s mission is to change perceptions of women in the technology field and encourage women of all ages to move toward a career in that sector.

A non-profit initiative that aims to gather women to exchange experiences and knowledge and provide guidance and chances in the Internet security field. It addresses women who participate in Internet security, including academic, research, governmental, and industrial circles.

WiCyS is provided to women and organizations that can benefit from the initiative’s expertise in the Internet security field. Through it, women can have the chance of learning and career development, regardless of their career level in the Internet security field. WyCyS provide for companies a set of qualified female candidates for Internet security jobs at all levels, to promote that on top of being highly qualified in the technological industry, they also can promote gender diversity in the working environment.

WiCyS was founded in 2012 by Dr. Ambareen Siraj from Tennessee Tech University through the National Science Foundation grant. In less than 10 years, the organization grew to become an alliance bringing together the pioneers of the academic, governmental, and industrial circles.

A non-profit Canadian organization, providing aid and information about safe abortion and contraception.

Women on Web, was established in 2005 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, it consists of a team of male and female doctors, researchers, activists, and the support desk team. The organization provides contraception and safe abortion services and facilitates its accessibility to protect women’s health and lives.

The organization’s mission is to provide safe abortion service on the Internet that is easily accessed for affordable prices by women all over the world. It also works on motivating the modification of procedures and legislations that obstruct women’s access to abortion through telemedicine, research, community awareness, and proliferation. The organization seeks to create a world where safe abortion services are available in dignity for every pregnant woman.

Women who need safe abortion or contraception can make an online consultation on the website. After consulting the doctors, medical abortion pills or contraceptives are sent by mail. The organization’s support desk team follow up with women through all the processes and answer all questions within 24 hours. The support desk team provides their services under the supervision of doctors in 16 languages, including Arabic, English, French, etc.

Women on Web website also guarantees to provide its services without any bias for all the people who need help in preventing or ending unwanted pregnancies, including transgender, non-binary, and queer people.

The website is considered a reliable source of information and collects personal abortion experiences to allow women and pregnant women to explore different choices and encourage them to openly discuss their reproductive options. Online medical consultations are being translated into 22 languages to ensure that all women and pregnant women have access to necessary information about abortion and contraception.

A global platform powered by Coding Girls, Tech Family Ventures and Tallocate aiming to enhance gender diversity, leadership and entrepreneurship in technology, and connect talented professionals with leading companies and startups.

The network hosts events in different parts of Europe and North America, where women can network with individuals working in the same field and meet employment managers. The primary mission of the Women Tech Network is to create a global impact by empowering women in technology through professional growth, leadership training, mentorship, and communication.

The events focus on generating discussions about diversity, networking, and exploration. It also connects female tech talents such as engineers, data scientists, designers, product managers, and women in other tech jobs with companies that share the same values and place diversity as a top priority.

An initiative providing resources for female students from kindergarten through secondary education, to encourage them into the field of digital security. The initiative has reached more than 14,000 girls, and provided resources for girls in middle school through group programs. CybHER aims to educate female students about digital security and encourage them to join the technology field.

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