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Digital silence: why are the voices of women so little heard online?

Whether via Twitter, podcasts, blogs, posts or comments, we are all able to share experiences and opinions online and in so doing play an active part in shaping internet content and discussions. But there are far fewer female bloggers, hackers and Wikipedia editors than there are male ones. Why is that? How can women become more active participants, so that internet content and discussion issues are not shaped exclusively by men?

Globally, women use the internet 12 per cent less than men on average; in Africa that figure rises to 25 per cent. In Germany men spend 153 minutes per day online, women 104 minutes.

The digital gap between men and women in terms of active participation in the internet is marked. Men are still responsible for the majority of internet content. They publish more tutorials, podcasts, comments and purchase recommendations than women and continue to leave a male imprint. According to the findings of a recent American study into the platform change.org, women are much less likely to launch petitions – but when they do, they are more successful. The proportion of women involved in programming open-source projects is just 11 per cent, according to the platform netzpolitik.org. It is estimated that the proportion of female Wikipedia editors is below 20 per cent.

Lack of internet skills, low self-confidence

In many developing countries, the majority of women lack the financial and technical opportunities and skills to use the internet as an everyday tool, let alone play an active role in shaping it. In countries such as Brunei, the Palestinian territories or Turkey, the gender difference when it comes to internet use is particularly high. Although women have a better digital education in industrialised and emerging countries, even here they show significantly less interest in active participation. According to Germany’s digital association BITKOM, the share of women enrolled in the 1,700 IT-related degree courses in Germany is less than 23 per cent.

No specific technical skills are required to become an active participant in the internet. Most tools are easy for novices to use. Despite this, many women clearly see the creation of websites, podcasts and blogs as a male domain and consequently keep their distance.

In addition, women are generally more reticent, less polarising and appear less dominant in the way they communicate in public. Their lower self-confidence and fear of conflict is often identifiable on the internet and their opinions often overshadowed. Many women are also put off by the often unfriendly and sometimes intimidating tone used on the internet. This behaviour leads to a vicious cycle: the less women participate in online communication, the more masculine and harsher its tone.   

On Wikipedia, fewer women write and edit content than men. We talked to Eszter Hargittai, professor at the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, about the reasons for this disparity.

Wikipedia – a man's world?

Discrimination against women and hate speech

Discrimination and hate speech are also obvious reasons for female reticence online. Young women in particular face exposure to sexual harassment online. Over half the young women surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2017 had received unsolicited offensive images. The international women’s rights organisation TERRE DES FEMMES observed that online remarks or comments directed at women rarely address factual content and more commonly focus on their physical appearance. The British daily newspaper The Guardian reported that: “articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.”

German television journalist Dunja Hayali has had similar experiences. She receives regular abuse, insults and threats on social networks not only because she is a woman, but also because of her Iraqi roots. She has since found her own to way to deal with hate speech: by going public and responding provocatively to abusive writers.

A quieter voice in society and politics

“The information society is incomplete without the inclusion, contribution and leadership of women and girls,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. The disproportionately low digital participation of women also has a negative impact on meeting Sustainable Development Goals. According to UN Women, this is particularly true in developing countries: “Increasing women’s and girl’s access, skills and leadership opportunities in ICTs has enormous potential to improve their health and empower them.”

Joining forces for greater equality online

“The internet needs to be more female!” is a view that has attracted support from many national and international initiatives. These not only demand equal opportunities for women as consumers of internet content, they also see it as essential that women create online content and use the internet as a platform to assert their rights. To this end, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UN Women 2016 jointly set up EQUALS, a global partnership for gender equality in the digital age, which develops many ideas to promote a more active role for women online. The initiative focuses on three core issues:

  • Access: improving access to digital technologies for women and girls;
  • Skills: developing skills among women and girls in the fields of science, technology and mathematics; 
  • Leadership: promoting women to decision-making positions in the ICT sector.

Video: Wiki Loves Women

The digital gender gap in Wikipedia has been a major problem for a long time. Wiki Loves Women, a project launched jointly with the Goethe-Institut in 2016 was set up to improve the involvement of women in Africa in the user-written online encyclopaedia.

Fazit

The IT industry also wants to reduce the digital gender gap. After all, women who are active online are an interesting target group for the industry. Google launched the project Womenwill, for example, and through its She Will Connect programme Intel aims to promote the participation of women and girls in the internet.

Web 2.0 has enabled everyone to tweet, blog and post with virtually no restriction. For women this represents a huge opportunity. They need to grasp it with both hands!

Author: Susanne Reiff, to the point communication

Internet a male domain? Join the discussion!

How do you see the internet, how big is the gender gap? How can the internet be made more female-friendly? Do you know women who are active online? We look forward to hearing your ideas and opinions in the community group “Digital Society”!

Community discussion

November 2017

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Comments

Usama Eita
18 November 2017

Men are tending to concentrate in one issue. Women are tending to involve in talkative issues such as social activities, because she like to talk more than listen, social activities for women is a green land for her tendency.finally, Issues in woman's mind looks like many boxes in her mind and she has the ability to jump from box to another and still connected to other boxes at the same time in a very good manner supported by a network that are connected all issues. Man tends to treat each box individually. Really, they (Women) are great.

Beatriz Acosta
17 November 2017

1. A very interesting debate and to be honest I haven't got an unique answer. As the article says women are in general not that kind of this sort of on line aggression and we must also say that progressive Internet Robotization is keeping women OUT of the net. If everything is false, why are we going to participate?

2. In general we - women - focus on Internet content and social networks where we can see and share personal conten; Pinterest and Instagram are very popular between women and girls. A decade ago also young girls used to create a blogspot to write poems or share pictures, but all this ended when Facebook appeared.

3. Personally, I love Twitter because I am interested in public affairs and culture. I am interested in knowing about the mainstream and the cultural milieu. I like the outside world. Many Twitter's users are willing to speak up and share their thoughts.

4. Hackers. Most of them are men because to be a hacker you need to know computer science and maths, and culturally we do not associate girls and maths....

Balthas Seibold
15 November 2017

Just two more links, that might be of interest:
Recently, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) launched the initiative #eSkills4Girls. It is a G20 initiative aims at tackling the existing gender digital divide in particular in low income and developing countries. The goal is to globally increase the access of women and girls in the digital world and to boost relevant education and employment opportunities. See https://www.eskills4girls.org/
Also, BMZ published the study "Women’s Pathways to the Digital Sector: Stories of Opportunities and Challenges" with some 22 experiences around the globe. see: https://www.bmz.de/en/publications/type_of_publication/weitere_materialien/study_eSkills4girls.pdf

Disclaimer: I work in a sector project advising BMZ on the issue above.

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