Why the digital space is important for women and equality

Illawarra Mercury – Natalie Croxon

So much of modern life is lived in the digital space: we use it for work, education, banking, communicating and more.

Yet 259 million fewer women have access to the internet than men worldwide, while a study of 51 countries revealed 38 per cent of women had experienced online violence.

The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’, something Lula Dembele, a director of the Illawarra Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre, hopes will bring awareness to the inequality women face in the digital space.

Ms Dembele said the tech sector was still male-dominated and as a result, their work was created through a male lens.

Digital spaces were still not safe for women in so many ways, she said, with harassment from strangers and domestic violence perpetrated online.

She also pointed out that the emergence of deepfakes – artificial intelligence-generated fake videos and images using a person’s likeness, which can be startlingly realistic – are used violate women by depicting them in sexually explicit and violent ways.

Ms Dembele said these issues were not being taken into consideration when digital systems, which everyone needed to use, were created.

She and the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre (the lead agency behind the trauma recovery centre) want safer spaces online for women and the victims of gendered violence.

One way to do this is if developers consider the principle of safety by design when creating apps and new technologies.

This involves embedding features within technology that will keep users safe by thinking about potential harm before it occurs.

The eSafety Commissioner says it also involves ensuring safety is part of the culture and leadership of an organisation.

Ms Dembele said disruption could also help keep women safe online and in digital spaces.

This involves stepping in and ending the ways perpetrators inflict online abuse and violence through products and services.

For example, the Commonwealth Bank and Westpac Bank introduced measures to stop abuse perpetrated through online banking through sanctions and warnings.

Ms Dembele said more investment in women-led technologies and including more women in consumer testing of products would help improve equality in the digital realm, as would getting more women working in tech.

“But before getting women in these male-dominated areas, we need to look at the cultures of these environments,” she said, and ensure they were safe for women to work in.

Technology also has the potential to empower women, particularly victim-survivors of violence.

Ms Dembele said she would like to see technologies that put victim-survivors in greater charge of their own information, giving them more agency.

“When we can capture the evidence of their own lived experience in a way that can’t be challenged, we can understand the breadth of the abuse and violence women experience,” she said.

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