Written by Lara Brett, Anna Hackett and Princess Temwa Mukuka
The 2023 International Women’s Day theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” (UN Women, 2022), has been introduced at a crucial time in the current global era. The increase in the use of technology in this fourth industrial revolution has taken place across a range of areas, and this technological change presents opportunities for both women and girls, which could impact them either positively or negatively.
Thus, the 2023 theme prioritises the need for societies to include women in all technological spaces so that they can gain essential digital skills that can unlock innovative ideas and further promote development. It also highlights the importance of tackling all forms of digital abuse that make the internet unsafe for women. Hence, there is a need to focus on the opportunities that innovation and technology have brought for girls and women, whilst also addressing the current existing inequalities and the risks that come with the high use of technology, such as revenge porn.
Closing the technology gender gap
In the European Union, 41% of scientists and engineers were women in 2018 (Eurostat 2020), with all but 5 of the EU’s member states having more male scientists than female in 2019 (Thornton 2019).
All EU member states have signed the Commission’s Women in Digital Strategy, with a Women in Digital Scoreboard measuring their performance (European Commission, 2019a; European Commission 2021a). Moreover, the 2019 Women in Digital Declaration, signed by 26 member states and Norway, pledged, among other things, to create national strategies to integrate more women in the digital sphere and to improve data collection on the issue (European Commission, 2019b). Action 13 of the bloc’s Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) aims to encourage women’s participation in STEM, endeavouring to “engage 40,000 young female students in training on the circular economy and digital skills” by the end of 2027 (European Commission, 2021b).
While the gender gap in technology and internet access in the EU is closing, it therefore continues to persist and exacerbate existing inequalities (Huffman et al., 2013, quoted by the European Institute for Gender Equality, 2020).
There are many factors that contribute to the continuation of the gender gap. In the EU, girls and boys are socialised differently as young children. Boys tend to use technology more confidently and overestimate their abilities, whereas girls underestimate theirs (Huffman et al., 2013, quoted by the European Institute for Gender Equality, 2020). Moreover, girls have more limited access to technology (UNICEF 2023). Overall, countries that succeed in the digital sphere also tend to be more gender equal, like Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2020). Conversely, women in wealthier and more gender equal European countries such as Sweden are less likely to have degrees in STEM, known as the “gender-equality paradox” (Sosammon 2018). There is also the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, which refers to the phenomenon where women are more likely to leave the science sector than men, although they account for the majority of Master’s students (Thornton 2019). Furthermore, the historical contribution of women to science and technology is often ignored, falsely implying that women are weaker at Information and Communications Technology (ICT) (Hicks, 2017, quoted by the European Institute for Gender Equality, 2020).
The European Commission predicts that Europe needs a further one million experts in the digital sector (European Commission 2019). By facilitating the entry of more women and girls into the STEM sector, the EU could increase its GDP per capita by 3% by 2050, improving the bloc’s GDP by up to 820 billion euros (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2022), and generating 16 billion euros annually (Girls Go Circular 2022).
Facilitating female participation in STEM from a young age empowers girls to shape the world around them by working in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and big data (European Commission 2019). This engagement with cutting-edge sectors gives them access to information, helping them to make informed choices, share their experiences, connect with others and search for jobs, among other advantages (UNICEF, 2023).
Digital gender equality within the context of revenge porn
Despite having the potential to enhance gender equality, technology can also be used to harm women. Revenge porn is the online distribution of sexually graphic images without the consent of the individual in the images, published with the intention to publicly shame the victim (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2017). As women are disproportionately victimised by revenge porn, it can be considered a form of gender-based violence (Gámez-Guadix et al., 2022). Victims frequently suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts which are sometimes acted on (Franks, 2015). Occurring in the digital world, revenge porn is facilitated by increasing technological and internet literacy worldwide. This issue is particularly relevant to this year’s theme, the goals of which include highlighting the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls in digital spaces and addressing online and ICT-facilitated gender-based violence (UN Women, 2022).
Efforts to combat revenge porn have been introduced in various European countries. In Ireland, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 criminalises the distribution of non-consensual intimate images with a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment. Similarly, in Italy, those disseminating revenge porn face up to six years imprisonment or fines of up to €15,000 as per the Codice Rosso law of 2019 (Polizia di Stato, 2022).
However, many believe that not enough is being done to tackle this issue on an EU-wide level, especially in targeting the platforms that host revenge porn material (Meaker, 2022). There is currently no European law enforcing the removal of content uploaded to pornography platforms without the subject’s consent. There was some disappointment when the recent revision of the Digital Services Act, the legislative framework governing the EU’s digital landscape, did not adopt article 24b, which proposed regulations governing pornographic websites (Prtorić, 2022).
There is hope though that legislation addressing revenge porn could soon be introduced by the EU. In March 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence. Article 7 proposes that the intentional sharing of non-consensual intimate or manipulated material becomes a punishable criminal offence (European Commission, 2022). Protecting women against physical and digital violence must become a priority for the EU.
While it is essential to understand why the digital gap persists, investigating the best practices that could address it must be equally prioritised. UNICEF recommends that “digital products and services need to be designed with and for girls to meet their realities” (2023). Failure to do so overlooks the needs of girls, which may further promote the stereotype of the digital sphere being exclusively male. UNICEF also notes that the limited involvement of girls in the “co-creation, design, and product testing” stages, further limits their access to the sector (2023).
The European Union should endeavour to change this by providing more funding for the teaching of STEM in schools and for extra-curricular activities for girls in science and technology. This should be done whilst encouraging participation by integrating tech-related workshops, summer camps, trainings, and competitions that only target females. This must also extend to universities and other academic institutions to uphold inclusivity at a level playing field as it could reduce the current skill gap, promote innovation and tackle the pre-existing institutionalised inequalities. The bloc could also gather data on the number of women in senior roles in the digital industry to identify where there is a need for more targeted initiatives (Sancier-Sultan, Scharf, 2022).
A significant step toward protecting the rights of women and girls in digital spaces would be for the EU to adopt the Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence, which makes revenge porn a punishable criminal offence. The EU should also address this form of violence through a holistic approach. Criminalising digital abuses like revenge porn without tackling its social and cultural influences and behaviours (Henry and Flynn, 2019) would lead to limited and unsatisfying results. On the whole, such efforts could integrate girls into the digital sector, which in turn helps women to enter and work long-term there, thereby combating social and economic inequalities.