United Nations: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality.
Women and girls now face a new source of discrimination and bias: digital technology. Today’s digital technology often uses algorithms designed by a male-dominated tech industry, based on male-dominated data, he said on Monday.
Rather than presenting facts and addressing bias, technology based on incomplete data and badly designed algorithms is digitising and amplifying sexism — with deadly consequences, he warned.
Medical decisions based on data essentially from men can damage women’s health. Safety features based on men’s bodies can put women’s lives at risk. And policies based on men’s data will leave women and girls even farther behind, he told a town hall meeting with civil society at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Xinhua news agency reported.
Artificial intelligence will be shaping the world of the future. Without women’s equal input, it will continue to be a man’s world, he added. “The gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality.”
Rather than uplifting women and girls by providing access to education, healthcare and financial services, technology is often used to harm and control them through surveillance and trafficking, Guterres said.
Online spaces are not safe for women and girls. Gender-based violence online has increased exponentially. Organised campaigns target women politicians, journalists and activists — a direct attack on women’s representation and on democracy itself. So-called influencers denigrate women and feed misogyny and toxic forms of masculinity to millions of young men and boys. Groups that campaign against women’s rights find a warm welcome on digital platforms, he noted.
Centuries of patriarchy and damaging stereotypes prevent women innovators from getting the recognition they deserve. Those same stereotypes push girls away from studying science, engineering, and math, and strangle the careers of women scientists. Women are credited less for their achievements, win far fewer prizes, and receive less research funding than men, even when they have the same conditions. Just two per cent of venture capital investment goes to start-ups founded by women, he said. “This must change.”
The male chauvinist domination of new technologies is undoing decades of progress on women’s rights. Gender equality is a question of power. For more than 100 years, that power was gradually becoming more inclusive. Technology is now reversing that trend. It is concentrating power again more in the hands of men — to the detriment of all, said Guterres.
“In the face of this patriarchal pushback, we must push forward — not just for women and girls, but for all communities and societies. Without the insights and creativity of half the world, scientific progress will fulfil just half its potential. And a safe, humane online environment requires the contributions of all of humanity,” he said.
But he warned that change will not happen on its own.
“We must take decisive and deliberate action. Policymakers must create, and in some circumstances must reinforce to create, transformative change by promoting women and girls equal rights and opportunities to learn; by dismantling barriers and smashing glass ceilings,” Guterres added.
The UN chief called on all leaders, as a matter of urgency, to take up the recommendations in the UN’s first-ever report on technology, innovation, education and gender equality that include promoting education and training in digital skills for women and girls; algorithms that align with human rights and gender equality; and investments in bridging the digital gender divide.
“We must connect everyone, everywhere to the internet by 2030. Leaving no one behind means leaving no one offline. But an internet connection is just the first step. The equal representation and participation of women are at the heart of transforming political, social, and economic models that today still largely exclude them,” he said.
“We need to overhaul the patriarchal structures that perpetuate gender inequality and especially in the technology sector.”
After years of incremental progress, women’s and girls’ rights have stalled and are going into reverse, he warned.
In every region, women are worse off than men, earning less — and doing up to 10 times more unpaid care work. The food crisis has a disproportionate impact on women and girls, who are often last to eat and first to go hungry. And women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights are under siege as many governments undermine their autonomy over their bodies and their lives, he noted.
The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over for women who lost their jobs, and girls who lost their chance at education. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting women and girls first and worst. Halfway to the Sustainable Development Goals deadline of 2030, the truth is that half of humanity is largely being left behind, he said.
“Together, we must resist the pushback against women’s rights, we must push forward for women, girls and our world,” Guterres added.