Stockholm Internet Forum 2015: Gender and ICT

I had the privilege to attend the Stockholm Internet Forum again the other week. This was the fourth time the event was held (read my blogs from 2013 and from 2014 here and here). This year the theme was access with a special emphasis on gender equality.

Women in many countries seem to be less likely to use the Internet, and one needs to ask why this is so and what can be done to encourage and enable women to access the Internet and make full use of its possibilities. I appreciate that a lot of the speakers and participants in Stockholm emphasized that having access to digital technologies and the Internet does not automatically empower people or achieve social justice. It is a fact that social, cultural, economic and political structures often constrain women from even accessing the Internet, and that when they do so their voices are not heard, and, in other words, that their access doesn’t translate into empowerment. Women are furthermore often subject to violence on-line, a topic addressed in a very interesting panel. Furthermore, women are also under-represented in the ICT sector, discussed in another panel, which has implications for how the sector develops and how sensitive it is to address gender issues.

It is therefore quite problematic that there is a lack of statistics and indicators on gender and ICT internationally, something which was highlighted in the 2014 UNCTAD report, Measuring ICT and Gender: An Assessment. In 2013 the Broad Commission Working Group on Broadband and Gender also revealed a significant ‘gender gap’ in access to ICTs. The World Web Foundation, present in Stockholm, had just before the meeting released a very timely and interesting report on women and ICT that covered ten different countries in low income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The report shows that women in most of these countries were nearly 50% less likely to access the Internet than men. In a report, Women and the Web, from 2012 done by Intel it was found that 23 % fewer women than men had access to the Internet in the developing world. Another report, Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries, published by GSMA in 2015, shows that women on average are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. What is even more striking is that women surveyed in the World Wide Web Foundation report were 30-50 % less likely to use the Internet to  increase their income or participate in public life. The Internet thus seems to be less empowering for women than for men, which is a very troubling sign that reveals that ICTs per se don’t bring about neither gender equality nor social and economic development.

It was very inspiring to talk with and listen to a range of women from all over the world, including Pakistan, Myanmar, and Cambodia, discussing their visions and projects to ensure women’s equal and safe access to and use of ICTs. I heard about a number of interesting groups and initiatives, including those by Bytes for All Pakistan. Other interesting projects on gender and ICT include Take Back the Tech, working for example against violence online. The World Wide Web Foundation’s offer some solutions to close the gender gap in ICT policy, and Tactical Technology Collective are involved in interesting work on gender and technology.

In the case of China, a country not discussed in Stockholm, men, like in many other countries, were early adopters of the Internet with women constituting only 12.3% of all users in 1997, but having increased to 38.7 % already by 2001. The official statistics from December 2014 show that the percentage of women using the Internet has increased to 43.6 % of all Internet users. In terms of percentage this might seem very impressive but it hides other types of gaps and inequalities. Unfortunately there is no available and comprehensive statistics on what Chinese women do online, whether their behavior differs from that of men, or whether, which I suspect, women like in many other countries are less empowered, economically and politically, through the use of digital technologies and the Internet. My own article on digital divides and influential opinion leaders on Weibo also show that women are less visible and influential online, and my earlier study of investigative journalists also found that male journalists were more active and influential on Weibo than were female journalists. But some Chinese women are also struggling for a political voice online, and different generations of women have over time tried to appropriate the Internet to raise awareness on gender issues. One of the first online networks for example took on the issue of domestic violence. Although many women blog about quite traditional topics, such as children and family issues, as discussed in a recent article by my colleague Annika Pissin, there are also some women who take on more sensitive and political topics such as women’s rights and human rights. One example is Zeng Jinyan, a feminist activist who visited Lund last year, who began to blog in 2006 and remain active on different online platforms, and another is Ai Xiaoming, a retired professor and feminist documentary filmmaker who received a Bobs award by Deutsche Welle in 2014. The latest example of women’s activism online is a group of Chinese young feminists in their 20s and early 30s who skillfully have used the Internet and social media to raise awareness on gender discrimination. Five of these young women were however briefly detained in the spring due to their activism, which created much concern during a period that also have seen crackdown of lawyers and other civil society actors. 

When looking at Chinese women and their use of ICTs one has to be aware that not only gender but other factors such as level of education, age, urban residency and ethnicity also influence their access and possibilities for empowerment. The intersectionality of ICT use thus needs to be addressed, and the women benefiting the most from ICTs are most likely middle-class and well-educated urban women. Again, apart from an early study from 2001, I haven’t seen any recent studies taking into account intersectionality and what it means for gender equality. There exists a few studies on how migrant women in China for example use mobile phones, and whether and how this changes their life. Two years ago I did a review of Cara Wallis’ excellent book Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones. In her books she analyses how gender, class and place intersect, and how they shape both technology use and the technology itself.

When it comes to women in the ICT industry I also suspect — reliable and comprehensive data is difficult to come by — that Chinese women are underrepresented, especially in higher management positions. China’s most famous Internet entrepreneurs are for example all men: people like Jack Ma at Alibaba, Lei Jun of Xiaomi, and Zhang Xiaolong who created WeChat. When it comes to e-commerce women seems to do better however. In May 2015, Alibaba released a report that showed that 50.1 % of the online shops on Taobao (China’s equivalent to eBay) were run by women. The new white paper on Gender Development and Women’s Development in China, released in September, claims that 55 % of all new Internet business are being funded by women. Many news media however reported more categorically that 55 % of internet entrepreneurs in China are women, which is not exactly what the report says. Given the fact women only make up 25 % of the total number of entrepreneurs, I doubt that there are so many women internet entrepreneurs, although it might be the case that we see a trend where more women are involved in new (whatever that means) internet companies such as for example within the Taobao e-commerce sector. Women are an important target for e-commerce businesses since Chinese women often are in charge of the family’s everyday shopping. This South China Morning Post report for example listed a range of apps especially targeting women that focus on beauty, shopping and more. The app Meiyou, launched in 2013 and with more than 70 million users, is particularly interesting because it started out as a menstruation tracker but later evolved into a social network app for women to discuss so-called women’s issues, including fashion, health, relationships, pregnancy and children.

This very short and preliminary discussion on some issues related to gender and ICT in the context of China shows that there is much scope for further study and we hope to explore some of them in our project.


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