International Women’s Day: Balance for a Safer Internet

The first Women’s Day was marked in February 1909, in wintry New York. Much has changed since, but sadly, women today still face old threats that simply come in new vehicles, digital ones.

If you were a woman in 1909 Britain you were likely treated as your father or husband’s property. This was still five years before you could serve as a constable in the police force, at least nine years before you would have the right to vote, and a whole sixty-six years before discrimination against women in employment, education and training became illegal.

Many of the rights we take for granted today have their foundations in The Sex Discrimination Act, which passed in 1975. That same year, the United Nations officially marked International Women’s Day (IWD) as an annual celebration of women’s achievements and a day of campaigning for women all over the world to live as equals. From that first gathering in chilly New York to a day commemorated internationally, the movement has come far.

Today, we live in a world revolutionised by the Internet – if you are 25 or younger you have grown up with it.  We have immeasurable information at our fingertips and can find advice on almost anything online. It feels like progress. Or at the very least, like potential for progress.

Unfortunately, the Internet’s current, almost-anarchic state is also part of the reason why, even in 2019, women still face serious threats.

Globally, women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online. Further, women of colour, women with LGBTQ+ identities and women with disabilities are targeted more. Shaming, sexual harassment, stalking, non-consensual photo sharing and threats of violence have proliferated on social media and in comments sections on articles and videos. Online abuse, while perpetuated through new technologies, echoes outdated and toxic attitudes to women. Amnesty International’s research also found politicians and journalists who are female and black almost two times more likely to receive abuse on Twitter than their white colleagues.

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Interviewing for the Guardian, Diane Abbott,  said she stopped using Twitter because  of the racist and sexist abuse she received through the 2017 elections. “It’s a shame really,’ she reflected, ‘I used to enjoy Twitter.”

Balance for Better, this year’s IWD theme, underlines the need for women to be better represented across society, particularly  for girls to be supported to pursue their interests in fields traditionally dominated by men.

Representation is key; more women in politics and technology could help shape a more balanced world, but women need to feel safe and resilient enough to participate – especially online. More women involved at every level, from design to  the boardroom, could make technology smarter, more inclusive and safe for everyone.

Great work is already underway;  Stemettes organises mentoring, hackathons, talks and exhibitions to inspire girls to explore STEM careers, and Feminist Internet’s ground-breaking projects challenge harmful representations of women, working to prevent sexism being embedded in Internet and Artificial Intelligence technologies.

We can all play a role as active bystanders to encourage women to contribute to these spaces and by challenging and reporting voices that attempt to intimidate. The Fix The Glitch Toolkit provides resources to clarify the different forms online abuse can take, and practical advice about how to respond to online abuse.

The Internet reflects but also shapes the offline world, and has potential to reach millions.  In late 2017, we saw the #MeToo movement shed light on the scale of sexual harassment. The movement has also prompted discussions both on and offline  about how gender norms affect everyone.

Today, we have technology that could help us collectively address barriers women have faced in silence for so long, but until we address the imbalance that limits gender representation across society and the toxic online behaviour that intimidates women from making their voices heard, this will remain only as potential.

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Just as the Sex and Discrimination Act of 1975 fuelled social change that helped women feel safer at work, legislative reform today could catalyse much-needed change to make online spaces safe. The introduction of a ‘tech tax’ last year was a fantastic step. Policy interventions could build on this by ring-fencing revenues from the new tax to fund public education and campaigns about online well-being alongside better governance and policing to investigate online abuse.

“I raise up my voice-not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
― Malala Yousafzai

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