Gender Equality is Central to Technology and Democracy
Gender Should not be Sidelined from Global Technology Governance Efforts
By Sahana Dharmapuri and Jolynn Shoemaker
In December, the Summit for Democracy put a spotlight on the crucial role that technology plays in stable and secure democracies. Countries collectively identified the urgent need to develop a shared vision for technology governance that is based on human rights and democratic values.
Unfortunately, the Summit also affirmed a major blind spot.
The Summit, like many other policy fora, did not directly address the critical importance of women’s participation in this new digital ecosystem as vital to healthy democracies. For the U.S. and many other countries, determining the future of technology and pursuing gender equality remain two very separate lines of effort.
As technology reshapes society with repercussions for democratic values, governance systems, and civic participation, how can this gender blind spot be addressed?
We launched Project Delphi to explore this missing piece. We are examining the intersections among gender inequalities, emerging technologies, and peace and security that still remain relatively invisible to many in the technology and policy arenas. Based on more than 40 interviews with experts and leaders in the public sector, technology space, and civil society, we were able to identify five trends that are interlinked and that amplify inequalities within the emerging digital ecosystem.
- Underrepresentation of women and communities of color in the technology sector, including in senior leadership and in the design of new technologies;
- Gender disparities in the access and use of technologies;
- Targeted gender-based harassment and abuse through technology tools and platforms;
- Widespread gender data gaps; and
- Gender and racial biases in machine learning and AI.
This is the first time that all of these gendered elements of the emerging digital ecosystem have been identified as reinforcing and interdependent– and as significant early warning signs of societal instability and weak democracies. These trends indicate systemic problems, and they can only be addressed effectively when gender is taken into account. Our research shows that technology and policy actors are only considering specific gender issues within silos, preventing an understanding of the full picture of gender inequality throughout the entire digital ecosystem, or an appreciation of the far-reaching implications for democracy, peace and security.
It is clear from our findings that the digital ecosystem is being built without the perspectives of women, girls, and underrepresented communities, with much wider ramifications. The direct result is a digital ecosystem that perpetuates, enables, and amplifies biases, misogyny, and gender-based abuses.
This presents a major problem for inclusive, democratic engagement, and it is a bad sign for democratic stability. Decades of research on the Women, Peace and Security agenda has shown that gender equality, democracy, peace and security are interrelated.
For example, gender-based violence (GBV) has remained an intractable problem globally, and it has increased during COVID-19. GBV has now moved to the digital space in a more intentional and systematic way. Online harassment, abuse and disinformation are used to silence women and prevent their participation in civic and political life. According to UN Women, women who are human rights defenders, journalists, those belonging to ethnic or gender minorities, and those with disabilities are often specifically targeted online.
Another phenomena we examined is how authoritarian governments and extremist groups have a well-established pattern of utilizing gender ideologies and targeting women human rights defenders and social justice activists. Authoritarian regimes and extremist groups alike, have adapted their tactics to technology platforms, often targeting women, girls and gender minorities. To counter these undemocratic forces, including digital authoritarianism, policymakers need to understand how gender is manipulated through technology tools.
As technology continues to advance, there are many other areas besides online GBV and disinformation that need to be understood and addressed with a gender lens. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already changing society in transformative ways. There is much positive potential, but it is now recognized that there are widespread gender, racial, social and economic biases in the way AI has been designed. AI has enormous implications for safety, security, and justice, especially as governments – both democratic and non-democratic – begin to find new ways to harness and use these technologies. The gendered aspects need to be analyzed, understood, and incorporated into policy decisions about how AI will be used in democracies.
Yet, gender inequality remains on the margins of the central debates about the future of technology policy.
The findings from Project Delphi underscore the urgent need for policymakers to recognize the gendered dimensions across every facet of the digital ecosystem – and to understand them holistically – to make more informed, inclusive, and sustainable choices about technology, governance, peace and security.
The good news is that the U.S. and other countries around the world have already made policy and legal commitments to address the relationship among gender equality, human rights, participation, and stability. Now, these existing commitments need to be applied to the technology governance space.
The U.S., and many other countries that participated in the Summit for Democracy, have National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security in place. There are now 100 countries that have adopted National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security. Some of the newer action plans have begun to include women’s participation in technology policy decisionmaking as a national security priority. Some countries have created additional frameworks to mainstream gender equality in their governments. For example, Sweden, Canada, and Mexico have further integrated the Women, Peace and Security priniciples through feminist foreign policies.
The U.S. released its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in 2011, and today, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world with legislation on Women, Peace and Security (2017).The Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-68) requires the U.S. Government to integrate perspectives and interests of affected women into conflict prevention; to promote the physical safety, economic security and dignity of women and girls; to collect and analyze gender data for the purpose of developing and enhancing early warning systems of conflict and violence, and to adjust policies and programs to improve outcomes in gender equality and the empowerment of women.
As the Summit for Democracy launches a year of action – focusing on democratic renewal for the governments that participated – it is time to systematically mainstream these established global and national gender equality frameworks into technology governance discussions.
It is a welcome step to include attention to the problem of online harassment and abuse within the gender-based violence frameworks that the U.S. announced during the Summit, including the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, and the U.S. National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence that is in development. But the emerging technology governance efforts must also adequately integrate gender equality, democracy and security.
The U.S. and democracies around the world should take concrete steps to mainstream gender analysis and global obligations relating to gender equality, democracy and peace into existing mechanisms for dialogue on the future of technology. There are already mechanisms within the UN, OECD, and G7, as well as Tech for Democracy, Freedom Online Coalition, Internet Governance Forum. There are others that focus on specific technology issues, such as AI and cyber security. This should be a policy imperative for the U.S. and other democracies that have committed to gender equality principles.
We have a moment of opportunity. It won’t last long. We should integrate evidence-based policy that builds on decades of research on Women, Peace and Security and other gender equality frameworks. If the U.S. and its partners are truly committed to technology that supports democratic and human rights values, gender equality needs to become a central pillar. Otherwise, we will continue to see the perpetuation of inequalities – and undemocratic forces – across both the physical and digital worlds.
About the Authors
About Our Secure Future
Our Secure Future: Women Make the Difference (OSF) is a department of the Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation. OSF works to strengthen the Women, Peace and Security movement to enable effective policy decision-making for a more peaceful world.