Our fractured systems and societal patriarchy will continue to perpetuate systematic injustices against women as long as they are not a part of the decision-making brigade in the digital world.
By Irfan Bashir
When we talk about social spaces, it is important to realize that digital spaces are as important as any physical space. The internet governs our lives today; from shopping online to finding suitable dates, the internet caters to all our needs. If the 20th century was defined by the industrial revolution, then the 21st century will be defined by the digital revolution. From blogging to tweeting, the internet has allowed us to express ourselves freely, creating opportunities but also leading to increase in gender inequality and marginalization of women.
Internet is humongous and ever-growing in nature. Unlike physical land which is limited, there is abundant e-space for all to co-exist with equal opportunity — at least, that’s the idea. Our present-day society is patriarchal in nature. Despite best efforts by the feminists, the issue of gender inequality hasn’t yet been solved.
One reason is that there exists a societal precedent of patriarchy that has put women at a disadvantage. For centuries, our society, laws, preferences, norms and cultures have been shaped and structured to fit the needs and desires of just men. Women have limited space and rights.
In modern times, the precedent is still visible in our languages and the workforce. The dawn of the digital age provided a ray of hope. Unfortunately, we observed that offline inequalities slowly crept into the digital world, creating the same paradigms.
The internet today does not provide any avenues for equal opportunities to women. It mostly caters to men. “In the tech world, only 28% propriety software jobs are held by women. For IT jobs, the number is low at 25%. Women executives at Fortune 500 companies are only 11%. Perhaps the worst fact is that only 5% of tech start-ups are owned by women. In comparison 55% of Twitter and Facebook users are women. Similarly, 60% of Zynga social gaming players are women. Among individuals holding professional jobs in the US, a majority of 56% are women,” according to Women who tech.
In the world of computing, for example, the stereotype of male superiority has proved more stubborn. The number one thing holding women back is stereotypes.
These numbers paint a stark reality of male dominance in the digital space. Men hold most of the positions of power and equal job opportunity doesn’t exist in the digital space, despite the fact that most of the users of this space are women. The digital space is governed by a patriarchal hierarchy.
Why is it that the digital space is so heavily dominated by men? One answer is stereotypes and prejudices. “At Google, women make up 30% of the company’s overall workforce but hold only 17% of the company’s tech jobs. At Facebook, 15% of tech roles are staffed by women. At Twitter, it’s a laughable 10%. For non-technical jobs at Twitter (think marketing, HR, sales), the gender split is 50-50,” according to Emily Peck.
This discrimination can be explained through stereotypes and prejudices. Christina Corbett in her interview with Emily from Huffington post says: “In computing, the stereotype of male superiority has proved more stubborn. The number one thing holding women back is stereotypes. The stereotype is that girls and women are not as good at math and science as boys and men are. There’s evidence that by first grade, most kids already associate math with boys. This is just a belief most of us have. It’s a reflection more of our culture than anything individual.”
Peck explains: “Those prejudices tend to make their way into the hiring process. Both male and female hiring managers often view women as less competent in math or tech.”
What we observe is that these stereotypes and prejudices are a result of the past precedent of male dominance that has defined our society and culture for ages. To overcome this precedent, women need to claim their space in the digital world. Today, people spend more time on the internet than anywhere else. If we want to have gender equality in the physical world, it won’t matter unless we have gender equality in the digital world. The digital space overshadows everything else. It’s a space that captures the most attention and that is the most visible to people. A strong presence on the internet translates to a strong presence in the real world. Today, the struggle for equality is shifting from the real world to the digital world. Trending topics and hashtags make it possible for voices to be amplified. So, if feminists want to win the fight for equality, a majority of that fight has to be fought in the e-space. Gender equality will remain a dream as long as women are not a part of the decision-making brigade in the e-world.
Most of what we see today is governed by algorithms and those algorithms are created by people — mostly men. Self-improving AI algorithms determine our Google search results, social media news feeds and online shopping recommendations. Increasingly, they also decide who can apply for a loan or a job interview, the chances a particular person will get stopped and frisked by the police, and how we consume content.
Algorithms can be biased, based on who codes them, how they’re built and what purpose they serve. For ordinary internet users, this bias can be hard to figure out
Algorithms can be biased, based on who codes them, how they’re built and what purpose they serve. The bias can be hard to figure out, predominantly since the technology often operates in a corporate black box. For example, studies have found AI tools to produce prejudices against black people and women. Consider the case of language-generation and image-generation algorithms. According to the MIT Technology Review, “Language-generation algorithms are known to embed racist and sexist ideas. They are trained on the language of the internet, including the dark corners of Reddit and Twitter that may include hate speech and disinformation. Whatever harmful ideas are present in those forums get normalized as part of their learning.”
Similarly, biases can be observed in image-generation algorithms. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and George Washington University found that when an image-generation algorithm was fed an image of a man, 43% of the time it would autocomplete him wearing a suit. In comparison, when the same was done for a woman, it auto-completed her wearing a low-cut top or bikini.
This has serious implications that spill into other domains like candidate assessment, surveillance and computer-vision applications. Point is that these algorithms are ever feeding on the internet of things, devouring all data that comes their way. Unfortunately, the web is full of scantily clad women and content that perpetuates harmful stereotypes against women. Thus algorithms without conscious human intervention will continue to replicate existent stereotypes and inequalities. There is a need for greater representation of women on the decision-making table where these algorithms are conceptualized because men are far removed from these underlying realities as they don’t affect them. Hence their foundational assumptions often tend to be wrong.
Women empowerment in the e-space is the need of the hour or else we will continue to have a fractured system that perpetuates systematic injustices against women. We live in a world where women have been historically disenfranchised and the online world creates an opportunity for change.
But we need to act fast or else we will continue to succumb to the same patterns of the past. We need to think carefully about who gets a seat at the decision-making table as that influences how e-spaces undergo changes and modifications.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg points out, women belong in all the places where decisions are being made. “It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”