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Women in Tech 22 December 2017

Let’s Make the Internet Safe for All

By April FroncekFormer Senior Editor, Internet Society Foundation

Imagine you’re at the starting line of a race, excited about the opportunity that awaits you when you complete the course. The starting pistol is fired and you try to take off, but instead of soaring with the other runners, you stumble. You look down to see that someone has slashed your shoelaces. As you crouch down to try to fix them, you see the others gain distance ahead of you.

This is the reality for many women who use the Internet. The technology is the same and its potential is the same for men and women. But when women go online, there are barriers to access and safety that men do not experience. While men might worry about identity theft or a virus, women – along with trans and non-binary users – are navigating a minefield of sexualized harassment, whether they’re on a dating site, gaming, or using social media. The sexual violence women are exposed to in the physical world translates to the online space.
According to a 2017 survey from Pew Research Center, women and men experience and view online harassment very differently. The survey found that, while 41 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment, women experience sexualized harassment at much higher rates than men. Women are also more likely to report that the emotional impact of the harassment is more damaging, and to view online harassment as a serious issue. Seventy percent of women said they thought online harassment was a major problem while only 54 percent of men said the same.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study out of Australia found that harassment of women was becoming “an established norm in our digital society,” especially for young women. Seventy-six percent of women under the age of 30 reported that they had experienced abuse online, with the harassment ranging from unwanted contact, trolling, cyberbullying, sexual harassment, and rape and death threats. This risk is increased for women and trans people of color, who are subject to racialized harassment on top of the genders abuse.

That reality is reflected in the way women are innovating online. One need only look at the Internet Society’s 25 Under 25 awardees – young people who are using the Internet to make a positive impact on their communities and the world – to see that innovation. While many of the young men’s projects tackle problems like fake news, stampedes, or traffic accidents – worthy and important, for sure – many of the women’s projects focus on making digital and physical spaces safe and equitable for people marginalized by gender. There are projects fighting revenge porn, teaching girls to code, providing sexual health information, and connecting women to healthcare.

“I was a victim of online harassment, receiving kidnapping and rape threats,” says Linda Patiño, a 25 Under 25 awardee who uses information and communications technology to promote gender equality and Internet safety in Colombia. She began this work after her own experiences, when she realized that other women likely didn’t have the tools or knowledge to respond to digital violence. “I entered this world so other girls know they are not alone. We are creating things to help them get through this,” she says. Paula Côrte Real, a 25 Under 25 awardee whose work in Brazil helps educate young people about the dangers of revenge porn and digital harassment, says that the responsibility for safety of users should be shared by the platforms themselves. “Terms of use are so huge that people are unable to comprehend them,” she says. “We need to be teach users how they can protect themselves while they’re online. We should empower the user.”

The innovations women are making in digital spaces are often overlooked or downplayed in favor of flashier projects, but it’s worth recognizing that many of these changemakers are using technology to solve the problems they face — often rooted in their marginalized gender — and that their work is just as important.

The Internet Futures Report touched on this reality, too. The Digital Divides are evident not only in the way women use the Internet, but in whether they’re even granted access to it in certain places, and how safe they are to navigate it once they’re online. “Boys have privilege more than girls,” says Kate Ekanem, a 25 Under 25 awardee who provides online literacy to young girls in Nigeria. “I started talking to other girls, our brothers were preferred, we were less human. I was 18 and I started to teach girls how to code, I trained myself. When I sit at my computer, I feel so powerful.”

Kate’s story demonstrates something extraordinary: Access begets access. The girls who are learning to code from her will be the next generation’s changemakers.

When women have a voice at all stages – from policy to design to implementation to content creation – we can start to see a world in which the Internet is truly open to all.

Want to make a difference? Join SIG Women, which aims to “promote a global neutral space that works towards the involvement of women in technology and contributes to reducing the gender gap in the field.”

Got a great idea to close tech’s gender gap? Apply for funding through Beyond The Net.

Celebrate some of the brilliant and gutsy women who are making the Internet a safer and more trusted place.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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