In an open letter last Thursday (March 12), the inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee warned that there is a “dangerous trend” of online abuse against women and girls. While recognising the considerable progress that has been made on gender equality in recent years, Berners-Lee said that he is “seriously concerned” about the online discrimination, sexual assault and threatening messages that is taking place on the internet against women and other marginalised groups. He calls for more urgent action to be taken to address the gender divide, online safety and discrimination built into artificial intelligence systems.
The internet is now an unsafe place to be, especially for women and girls, wrote Berners-Lee in his open letter marking the internet’s 31st birthday on Thursday. From forcing women out of jobs, causing girls to skip school and silencing female opinions, Berners-Lee remarked that “the web is not working for women and girls”.
“The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere. But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls – especially those of colour, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalised groups – threaten that progress,” he wrote.
Three specific issues require urgent attention, the letter wrote. The first is the digital divide that is keeping over 50% of women offline due to various systematic social, economic and cultural inequalities such as lower income, lacking access to equipment or the education to use it. He also highlighted the issue of online safety, with more than half of women experiencing online violence, sexual harassment, threatening messages and private images being shared on the internet without consent. Thirdly, some artificial intelligence (AI) systems are built with biases, which risks further exacerbating existing prevalent gender discrimination across the web.
When it comes to battling these problems, Berners-Lee said that it will “require the attention of all those who shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials.” Specific policy recommendations included publishing women’s experiences online, making sure the online and AI systems are designed with feedback from women of all backgrounds, and strengthening laws to hold online abusers responsible.
He also added that the coronavirus pandemic makes it even more important to take action now, as workplaces and schools will be increasingly brought into the virtual world.
Despite the fact that female empowerment has climbed the ranks of global priorities in recent years, there is still much to be done to elevate the position of women, whether it be socioeconomic, cultural, political, or digital. Ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8) this year, the United Nations published a gender equality report revealing that not a single country in the world has achieved gender parity on all measures.
Even in some of the most progressive industries of today, such as the food tech sector where startups are developing sustainable solutions to solve global food challenges, companies remain embedded in the gender unequal status quo. As Berners-Lee mentions, many tech firms are rife with inequality, and women are systematically losing out on leadership positions, gender pay gap and investment differences.
Some initiatives have been launched to tackle this. Multinational investment firm Goldman Sachs revealed that it will no longer take companies public without at least 1 woman on the board, but the initiative crucially will not cover companies looking to go public in Asia, a region particularly lagging behind in awareness and action on corporate gender equality. To fill the gap, Ashoka and Deutsche Bank recently joined hands to create a social entrepreneur accelerator specifically for women in Asia.
We recently celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th by covering the women making the world a better place here in Asia. Check it out here.
Lead image courtesy of Amnesty International.