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   Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women.

The Urgent Case for Gender Equality in the Digital Age

The Urgent Case for Gender Equality in the Digital Age – FP Analytics (foreignpolicy.com)

Technology increasingly permeates every facet of our lives. The digital economy accounts for nearly 16 percent of global GDP and is growing two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the world economy.1,2 Everything from social interactions and politics to business, health care, and education increasingly rely on digital connections, innovation, artificial intelligence, and advanced algorithms. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated our digital dependence.

According to a recent study by Our Secure Future, the digital ecosystem is reflecting and amplifying gender inequalities in society.3 Addressing these problems requires moving beyond women’s participation, and toward the integration of gender analysis.

Yet half of the world’s population is at a grave disadvantage in this new age. Women and other chronically marginalized groups have long been barred from shaping institutions. Today, they find themselves excluded from technology development and the governance frameworks that are shaping the future. A pervasive digital divide, particularly in the Global South, continues to inhibit women’s ability to design and use technology. According to FP Analytics research undertaken last year, not one of the 111 data governance frameworks under development worldwide had meaningfully taken gender equality into account. The Women, Peace, and Security policy framework offers the private sector and international institutions some solutions.

What is Women, Peace, and Security?

Women, Peace, and Security, based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 passed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council in October 2000, is a global movement to ensure the full inclusion of women and gender perspectives in building peace and stability around the world. In 2017, the United States adopted the Women, Peace, and Security Act to ensure women’s full participation in peace and security decision-making. And today, 80-plus countries have adopted National Action Plans on Women, Peace, and Security.

This global advocacy effort has been pressing for change in peace and security leadership and processes for more than two decades. Efforts by women and women-led civil society to build peace and be included in peace and security decision-making have been going on for much longer. This agenda has also shown that gender is far more than “women’s issues” that can be brushed aside.4 Gender equality is closely correlated with social stability, state security, rule of law, and good governance. Research has demonstrated that the way in which women are treated in a society is a harbinger of that society’s stability and propensity for violence. The WPS framework can be used to examine the human factors in our digital ecosystem more holistically, including gendered dynamics and implications for the future of peace and security.

Women, Peace, and Security can be used to examine the digital ecosystem more holistically, including gendered dynamics and implications for the future of peace and security.

Attempts to address the underrepresentation of women and marginalized groups, outright discrimination against them, and the range of other issues constraining women’s engagement in the digital ecosystem have been fragmented and siloed to date. Beyond the digital divide and barriers to access, a 2020 global survey4 by World Pulse further found that women around the world online face myriad challenges, including privacy concerns, online harassment, and technology-enabled violence, among other problems that have inhibited their full engagement on these platforms. These limitations and the failure of policy frameworks to meaningfully address them carry profound implications for political participation and organizing, economic activity, and security worldwide.

Multilateral action is needed urgently to develop a more comprehensive framework that accepts woman as equal partners in designing new platforms and taking the lead in regulating tech. The good news is that actors across the international community have already adopted a policy framework that applies at international, national, and local levels that is inclusive, promotes human rights in security, and is already being applied globally. The Women, Peace, and Security agenda requires governance frameworks to include a gender perspective to ensure the inclusion of marginalized voices.

Failure to apply a gender lens to these frameworks – such as that set forth by UNSCR 1325 – not only perpetuates the existing social and economic exclusion of women, but also abandons vast opportunities for technological improvement, enhanced business performance and wealth creation. This is not just a problem affecting women and other marginalized groups. At stake is economic growth, security, and basic human rights for the world as a whole.

Equality in the Digital Ecosystem is an Economic and Business Imperative

Failure to fully achieve gender equality across today’s technology platforms carries significant economic costs that will continue to grow into the future should the aforementioned issues not be remedied. For example, women control an increasing share of wealth in the U.S. and other countries around the world and are the main purchasing decision-makers in households.5 Systems that intentionally or unintentionally exclude women and other marginalized groups and fail to account for how they participate online is a significant blind spot for businesses.

Applying a gender perspective would more intentionally take into account the different experiences that women, men, boys, and girls have in varying environments and situations. Understanding and accounting for these differences in policy and technology design would help to ensure that the varying needs, priorities, and values of these groups are more effectively prioritized and reflected in the digital environment. Considering and accounting for these factors from the outset also enables policymakers and technology developers to anticipate the effects these differences can have on the economy and society.

As the digital economy continues to expand and permeate every facet of life, the full participation of women and marginalized groups in the sector can unleash greater opportunities for economic growth worldwide.

Removing Access Barriers is a Critical First Step

Roughly 58 percent of the world’s 7.6 billion people have access to the internet,6,7 including some 26.6 billion devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) along with 7.2 billion mobile phones. This translates into nearly four IoT-connected devices and a mobile phone for each person on Earth.8 These online platforms and mobile devices are increasingly driving economic activity, enhancing efficiency, opening new markets, and reducing transaction costs. These trends are likely to continue, with global smartphone revenue projected to grow 13 percent in 20219 alone.

As the number of devices grows, so, too, does economic opportunity through expanded e-commerce. E-commerce’s share of global retail trade grew from 14 percent in 2019 to 17 percent in 202010 and is a trend that has been accelerated amid the stay-at-home response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women’s ability to participate fully and equitably in the digital economy is essential for future economic growth around the world. Despite the outsized economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, their current and future purchasing power as well as their projected growth in wealth means that even limited barriers to their participation in the digital economy could substantially constrain economic growth and business profits. Ensuring gender equality across digital platforms is not only a matter of human rights and economic opportunity – it’s smart business.

These gaps pose a direct threat to economic development and the bottom line of companies as digital exclusion and concerns over safety and security online limit women and marginalized groups’ engagement in the new digital economy.

Like other parts of the global digital infrastructure, the digital pillars of the global economy and digital finance have been designed and implemented overwhelmingly by men and are often built without considering the gender-based differences of users. Approximately 1 billion women remain unable to access financial services because of limited access to mobile phones, underdeveloped digital skills, and inappropriate products, among other barriers.11 These gaps pose a direct threat to economic development and the bottom line of companies as digital exclusion and concerns over safety and security online limit women and marginalized groups’ engagement in the new digital economy.

Expanding women’s access to the digital services – including digital financial services – is critical to future economic growth in developing and developed economies alike. Progress is being made, but slowly. Over the past six years, the number of women with an online bank account or mobile money service increased by more 240 million, according to the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI), increasing economic activity, savings, financial independence, and resilience.12 However, much more needs to be done to address the aforementioned barriers and fully harness the potential that digital inclusion and equity offers.

Online Harassment is Adversely Affecting the Bottom Line

Despite the promise, social media platforms are exacerbating many of these issues and undermining the economic and financial gains from digital inclusion. Three-quarters of U.S. adults who have recently experienced some form of online harassment say it took place on social media platforms.13 The incidents, which include offensive name-calling and physical threats, disproportionately affect women. Three times as many women under age 35 reported being sexually harassed online (33 percent versus 11 percent) – with the percentage of women of all ages who reported being sexually harassed online doubling since 2017.14 Nine in 10 women said online violence harms their well-being, and nearly three-quarters expressed concern that online abuse could escalate into offline threats, a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit found.15 These threats produced significant economic damage in the form of lost work and higher health care costs.

These incidents, which can drive women (and all people) from social media and other tech platforms not only risk safety and security, but businesses’ bottom lines. Businesses of all types frequently use social media to drive business toward their e-commerce platforms, and many major social platforms are transitioning toward becoming e-payment platforms themselves. Facebook, which accounts for two-thirds of the global social media market, now offers e-payment services.16 In China, Tencent’s WeChat’s billion active users, along with Alibaba’s Alipay, have captured the vast majority of that country’s mobile payment market.17 However, 20 percent of women report having stopped using social platforms because of online harassment. This translates into real earnings lost for companies trying to use these platforms to drive sales.18 The social platforms themselves are also losing earnings from diminished participation from women and other marginalized groups on their platforms.

Businesses cannot afford to be gender-blind and lose the growing purchasing power of female consumers.

Businesses cannot afford to be gender-blind and lose the growing purchasing power of female consumers. Women constitute more than 38 percent of the global labor force19 and control 32 percent of the world’s wealth, or around $72 trillion.20 Between 2016 and 2019, women accumulated wealth at a rate of more than 6 percent a year, far outpacing the growth of the broader economy. Over the next three to five years, an added $30 trillion in assets are expected to shift into the hands of U.S. women, according to McKinsey.21 That trend is projected to continue in coming years22, even as the gender pay gap is projected to cost the global GDP $28 trillion by 2025.23

To put women’s economic power in perspective, the $72 trillion in wealth they control is larger than the 2019 GDP of the world’s 23 largest economies combined and 40 percent higher than the combined GDP of the 37 countries that belong to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).24 In 2017, women in the U.S. alone earned $5.2 trillion25 – double the United Kingdom’s 2020 annual GDP and larger than Japan’s in 2019.26

Today, even a mainstream business publication such as Forbes recognizes the gender-blind spot of businesses: “Gender is the most powerful determinant of how we see the world and everything in it. It’s more significant than age, income, ethnicity, or geography. Gender is often a blind spot for businesses, partially because the subject is not typically addressed in most undergraduate or graduate-level business courses, or the workplace itself.”27

Disrupting a System that is Built by and for Men

Women’s representation in the tech industry, particularly leadership roles, is stubbornly low – and falling. Women represent a fifth of technical jobs28, and the pipeline to these positions is clogged. In the United States, the number of women undergraduate students in computer science fell from 37 percent in 1985 to just 14 percent in 2014,29 because schools were not able to cultivate an environment able to retain women in the field. Beyond the dismal statistics on women’s participation, the even lower rates of diversity in the tech sector and the future of the digital commons becomes increasingly problematic.

Need to Foster Women’s Development in Tech Careers

In addition to a limited enrollment, women are leaving tech fields more rapidly: Over a 12-year period, women left careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at two-and-a-half times the rate that they abandoned other career paths.30 Many women cite unfair treatment, a toxic workplace culture, and sexual harassment as causes for their departure.31

A UNESCO study found that women account for just 12 percent of artificial intelligence researchers and 6 percent of AI software development professionals.

Women hold just 20 percent of the chief innovation officer jobs at Fortune 500 companies and fill just 11 percent of those posts globally.32 According to a McKinsey Report, only 20 percent of employees in technical roles at major machine-learning companies are women. A UNESCO study found that women account for just 12 percent of artificial intelligence researchers and 6 percent of AI software development professionals.33

Efforts by women and people from different identity groups to redesign and drive innovative enterprises are further stymied by an overwhelmingly white and male venture-capital industry. [White] men represent 92 percent of partners at the top 100 firms.42 Because tech startups typically require venture capital to get off the ground, male bias can be a powerful barrier to tech startups, particularly those that are women- and minority-owned. Since 2020, only 17 percent of venture-backed companies were founded by women,43 and women have received no more than 3 percent of U.S venture capital funds.44 More than half of startups lack women in their leadership teams.45 In addition to contributing perspective to design and decision-making, women’s inclusion in tech has been demonstrated to increase business performance and profitability.46

The Digital Commons Must be Secure For Everyone

Women and marginalized groups are experiencing systemic bias and abuse in technology leadership, creation, and use, which plays out in both digital and physical realms, according to analysis by Our Secure Future. A major consequence of a digital ecosystem designed for and by men is that it has become an unsafe platform for women, who often face harassment and threats of violence. According to the EIU, half of women believe the internet is a dangerous place to share their thoughts, a viewpoint that undermines security and social stability by discouraging women’s political and civic engagement.

In addition to the aforementioned levels of gender-based harassment, political conflict in the digital public square is on the rise – 20 percent of Americans say they have been targeted online because of their political beliefs, up from 14 percent in 2017.49 This pattern raises security concerns, particularly when conflicts inflamed online spill out onto the streets. Without systems in place to monitor and remove violent language, we have seen how online platforms have allowed recruitment opportunities for international extremist groups such as ISIS to flourish.50

The documented targeting of women and minority groups by alt-right extremists on social media platforms has also been a way to test violent tactics on people before moving into the mainstream.

 

The documented targeting of women and minority groups by alt-right extremists on social media platforms has also been a way to test violent tactics on people before moving into the mainstream.51 In the U.S., digital platforms have accommodated the incitement of domestic violence by QAnon supporters and others who sought to halt the presidential electoral process underway at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.52 In addition to examples from the U.S., Chinese, Iranian, and Russian state media smear and discredit female targets and use misogynistic tropes in disinformation campaigns that create fertile ground for harassment and violence.53 State and non-state actors alike are increasingly using digital platforms to encourage and facilitate violent activities – posing hard security and governance challenges that can put everyone at risk.54

There are also instances when a failure to include a gender perspective in technological development produced national security vulnerabilities. The fitness tracking app Strava, which monitored individuals’ running routes, posted the routes and the runners’ real-time location online. Activists raised concerns that the app could be used to stalk women. But not until several years later, when security analysts discovered that the app could be used to locate U.S. military bases around the world, was the problem addressed.55 This is a poignant example of the interconnectedness of women’s security with broader national security. If Strava had addressed women’s concerns initially, they could have prevented the abuse of the app in undermining the security of the U.S. military.

As online-generated violence escalates, gender perspectives are needed to intercede and reconstruct the system – a major tenet of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. It recognizes that violent conflict affects women, men, girls, and boys differently and calls for women’s full and meaningful participation at all stages of international peace and security decision-making and stresses that when women are included in peacemaking processes, they reach resolutions more quickly and peace endures.56 Women’s participation in these peace-building discussions is urgently needed in the digital realm and is an imperative that the aforementioned examples only begin to illuminate.

Diverse Voices in the [Digital] Public Square Must be Safeguarded and Elevated

As noted above, online abuse discourages women from engaging online – limiting their social and economic interactions, and their ability to participate in politics. This undercuts a key tenet of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, which affirms that political participation by women and women-led civil society is essential for social stability and peace.57 Women lawmakers are still three times more likely than their male counterparts to receive comments containing sexually abusive language.58 A study of women parliamentarians by the Interparliamentary Union found that more than four in five of these lawmakers had been subjected to psychological violence; nearly half had been threatened with rape, death or kidnapping, and more than 40 percent had been targeted with humiliating or sexually degrading images of themselves spread across social media. These attacks often extend to the politicians’ families.59

Numerous women have abandoned their political leadership aspirations out of fear for their own and their family’s safety. While there are no figures on how many women choose not to run for office as a result of online abuse, the Interparliamentary Union survey found that three in five women believe that the main goal of such online harassment is to dissuade them from political participation. Some organizations that encourage women to run for office, such as VoteRunLead, have enacted training on how to deal with online abuse.60

Democracy is less representative if half of the population feels social media has made it unsafe to be a political activist.

 

“Forty years ago, women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets,” said Yvette Cooper, a British Labour member of Parliament for Normanton, Pontefract, and Castleford. “Today the internet is our streets and public spaces. Yet for some people, online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism, or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out.”61

Indeed, democracy is less representative if half of the population feels social media has made it unsafe to be a political activist. Women journalists who cover politicians also feel threatened. One in three journalists who are women has considered abandoning their profession because of online attacks, and 70 percent have experienced threats, attacks, or harassment, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation.62 These trends present real risks to women’s safety and to democracy, which depends on engaged journalists and accountability to maintain public trust.

Progressive Reforms Can be Formalized and Strengthened

A digital system that excludes women from leadership positions, creates gender-biased technology and discourages women’s participation in politics and the global economy calls out urgently for a broad remedy – one that is backed by international governments, multinational institutions, industry, academia and civil society. That prospect appears possible as international organizations and government regulators around the world, from the United Nations to the European Commission and U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), undertake parallel efforts to apply a gender lens to technology development and application.

The Gender Equality Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, organized under the auspices of U.N. Women in partnership with the Mexican and French governments, is making modest progress toward this end. This coalition includes the governments of Finland, Chile, Tunisia, Armenia and Rwanda; major tech platforms such as Microsoft and Salesforce; multinational institutions, including UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union; and civil society organizations and foundations, including the Global Fund for Women, Digital Grassroots, and the Rockefeller Foundation.63 Their agreed-upon goals include making digital space safer for women, fast-tracking women’s tech leadership and supporting the entry of women and girls into the tech industry.64 Building on efforts like these, or integrating them into a more comprehensive framework, could help level the digital playing field for women worldwide.

Implementing these regulations worldwide would be a powerful step in protecting women from persistent harassment and stalking by making people harder to track online.

 

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) contains ambitious data-privacy requirements that could guide U.S. regulation and lead to a comprehensive framework. These privacy rules require companies to tell users whether and how their personal data is being collected, used, and held. Users also must be guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”65 Implementing these regulations worldwide would be a powerful step in protecting women from persistent harassment and stalking by making people harder to track online.

While the GDPR has broader applications, the European Commission’s recently proposed Artificial Intelligence Act,66 which seeks to establish a legal framework on AI for Europe and inform other frameworks, contains specific provisions limiting “high-risk” uses of AI and would require companies to provide regulators with proof of the companies’ safety and risk assessments and written explanations of how the technology makes decisions. The proposal specifically includes gender, requiring that AI systems conform to all existing EU non-discrimination and gender equality measures – and address discrimination in hiring and issues pertaining to facial recognition software. Penalty guidelines include fines up to $36 million or 6 percent or global revenues, whichever is higher. Unfortunately, these are only guidelines, with each member state able to determine implementation, making it unclear the extent to which the proposal will succeed.

While the EU is taking progressive action, an array of regulatory and legislative measures could shore up U.S. leadership on this issue as well. In late April, the FTC announced67 its intent to further address discriminatory and equity issues in companies’ use of AI. The FTC actions target companies that reinforce bias in AI algorithms and could trigger enforcement action if statements to business customers and consumers alike are not truthful, are deceptive, and are not backed by evidence. Gender is explicitly included in recent guidance as a protected class. As referenced in the guidance, if, for example, an AI developer informs a client that their product will provide “100 percent unbiased hiring decisions,” but the underpinning algorithms lacked racial or gender diversity, that might be considered deceptive or discriminatory and lead to an FTC enforcement action.68

The most well-known of these is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields social media platforms from liability for the content hosted on their sites.69 Repealing or reframing this legislation to enable tech giants to be held liable for damages caused by harmful content could be a powerful incentive for tech platforms to better manage their websites. Such a change would create a financial incentive for tech companies to implement systems that prevent such content from being posted in the first place rather than simply removing it once the damage has been done. While the FTC has broad powers to investigate, the commission’s ability to bring cases based on privacy and data security violations – the primary measures used in big-tech enforcement actions – might be limited in light of a April 22, 2021, Supreme Court decision in which the justices unanimously ruled70 that the FTC cannot compel companies that engage in “unfair or deceptive acts or practices to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution” – undercutting the commission’s ability to take enforcement action against big tech.

Beyond the FTC, however, the U.S. could take other measures to further ensure women’s digital security, including reauthorizing the U.S. Violence Against Women Act to include provisions dealing with gender-based online harassment. Congress also could consider allocating funds for law enforcement personnel to tackle online abuse and raise awareness about the problem. VAWA legislation could be expanded to include transparency and reporting requirements for tech platforms.71

Another important legislative vehicle would be including content moderation and transparency reporting requirements in bills regulating social media – particularly for the largest social media companies. Input from tech industry experts could help shape the specifics of what information these social media platforms are required to disclose, how regularly they must disclose it, and what the consequences will be of violating these requirements. If major social media companies are obliged to publicly disclose sufficient detail about how they approach and moderate content, then activists, coalitions, and other global stakeholders can contribute their perspectives to how these companies adapt their approaches to adequately ensure everyone’s safety online. Some tech leaders, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg,72 have endorsed greater transparency as a positive step – but more action is needed.

Moving Toward a More Equal Digital Future

The digital revolution has brought much good to our lives. We can connect with one another from anywhere in the world, find our way to any location, confirm the most obscure fact in seconds, and shop for products and services from any place on Earth with the pressing of a finger. AI promises to usher in even greater technological advances to better our lives. Yet embedded design flaws across digital platforms threaten the safety, political participation, and technological input of half of the world’s population. Making our technology gender-inclusive and ensuring that it is safe for all to use will help fulfill the promise of the internet to make the world a more stable, secure, and prosperous place for everyone.

Source: WUNRN – 16.09.2021

 

 

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