International Women’s Day: We must challenge discrimination women face across the digital landscape

This International Women’s Day, ORG is celebrating the critical contributions made by the women on our staff (and all women across the digital rights space) to making technology, and in turn the world, more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. This day also presents an important opportunity to highlight the challenges that women continue to face across the digital landscape.

Due to lack of access to funds and technology, women are poorly represented online. Men are 21% more likely to be online than women overall and this statistic increases to 52% in the Global South.1 This gap negatively impacts women’s access to vital services like education, employment, and healthcare. Women are more likely to face online violence and harassment,2 with new developments like deepfake technologies only worsening these issues. Women are also underrepresented in the technology industry, making up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and maths and holding less than a quarter of senior leadership roles at large global technology firms.3

As technology increasingly embeds itself into every aspect of life, wider societal gender bias and a lack of representation across the technology industry have had far-reaching implications for women. In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez demonstrates that tech culture has historically taken a “one-size-fits-men” approach where white, male employees only considered their own lived experiences and used similarly limited data sets.4 Research has demonstrated that machine-learning systems rapidly develop biases if their design and data sets are not adequately considered.5 Criado-Perez highlights that Google’s speech-recognition software is 70% more likely to understand men due to training the software on recordings of male voices.6 Additionally, a study by the University of Virginia showed that AI learned to associate women with pictures of the kitchen after reviewing more than 100,000 labeled images from around the internet.7

This gender data gap perpetuates systemic discrimination against women with a profound effect on their personal and professional lives. And of course, women are not affected equally by these entrenched biases. Women of colour and trans women are even less likely to be represented in data sets and on the teams creating technologies, compounding these negative effects. For example, as writer and educator Janus Rose has noted, gender recognition AI, which attempts to determine gender based on images, is particularly harmful to trans people.8 The UK’s digital hostile environment has led to particular harms for migrant women who, as ORG’s Policy manager Sophia Akram has reported, are less likely to report abuse and access support services for fear of deportation.

Open Rights Group is committed to challenging discrimination and inequity in all its forms. This International Women’s Day, we remain focused on the work that is still to be done.