Isis Anchalee is a platform engineer. Earlier this year she was asked by her company, together with other employees, to post for a recruitment ad. The backlash her photo received was disturbing; the ad was thought not to be real because Isis does not fit the image of how an engineer should look like.
Writing a blog post about her experience receiving totally undeserved sexist comments, she explained that she looks like an engineer because she is one. She then asked women working in tech to post photos of themselves with #iLookLikeAnEngineer tag. Engineers from different countries, of different ages and with different science degrees answered the call.
She is now working on a website, www.ilooklikeanengineer.com, a safe platform for sharing stories and experiences relating to diversity issues in tech.
Zoe Quinn is a video game developer and 2D artist. She became a victim of “doxing” – a term used for making someone’s personal details such as home address, phone numbers, bank details, and, in some cases, social-security number—public on the Internet. She started receiving prank calls, threatening emails and abusive tweets which made her feel unsafe in her own home; she went to sleep on friends’ couches. And while waiting for the authorities to determine if the threats to her life are real or not she co-founded Crash Override, an online platform offering support to victims of online harassment.
These are successful stories, but there are many more, often untold, of women who were not able to respond, and resulted in catastrophic ends.
Amanda Todd was 12 when she met a stranger on Facebook. He complimented her looks and convinced her to send him a topless photo of her. One year late the photo went viral. The man set up a fake Facebook account using Amanda’s photo and started sending friend requests to her classmates. She changed schools but the harassment didn’t stop. At 15 she committed suicide after posting a video on YouTube explaining her decision.
Internet gives women a voice, especially in countries where they do not have one in the offline world. At the border between private and public space, the internet and social media networks offer women a platform to interact, to learn, to connect, to be informed and to make money.
In a survey conducted by BBC in 2014 two-thirds of respondents (67%) say the Internet brings them greater freedom, with the most enthused respondents being in Africa (81% in Nigeria and 78% in Kenya). However, those who feel “the Internet is a safe place to express opinions” (40%) are outnumbered by those who disagree (52%).
However, some of the stereotypes, negative attitudes and beliefs toward women have also infiltrated this new space. By leaving the online platforms to self-regulation, chances are that women will be shut-out from participating.
A study from Demos, Misogyny on Twitter, looked at the frequency of use of the English words ‘rape’, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ by UK-based Twitter accounts. They found that in a little over 1 month there were around 100,000 instances of the word ‘rape’, with around 12% appearing to be threatening. In the same time frame, there were around 131,000 usage of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ with approximately 18% of them appearing misogynistic.
There is a misperception that online harassment is harmless. It actually has severe social and economic implications for the lives of millions of women and girls. Online threats of rape or death, misogynistic comments, doxing, trolling, identity theft, “revenge porn” lead to loss of reputation, invasion of privacy and use of financial resources for legal fees or online protection services. Moreover, internet is used to facilitate offline VAW. For example, women and girls are assaulted and filmed, the perpetrators threatening to release the video if the victim reports them to the police.
Reports suggest that 73% of women have already been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence. As the number of women who have access to internet grows—there are estimates that 450 million new female Internet users could come online within the next three years —the potential cost of online VAW to the societies and economies is significant.
While a multi-level approach is needed to tackle Cyber VAW, such as working with law makers, law enforcement agencies, health and social services providers, private companies and NGOs, there is a degree of action each internet user can do to help decrease of online VAW.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Read, be informed & speak up
Women and men who experience online harassment need to talk about it. No one should suffer in silence or think they are alone. There are several online support groups and organisations that can assist with preventing or reporting.
It is important to know to what extent the privacy and violence against women laws cover online harassment. Also, before using an online platform, a quick glance at the terms and conditions is useful, in order to understand the level of privacy granted, as well as the reporting mechanisms in case of abuse.
Websites such as Take Back the Tech have Safety Toolkits for online activities and also a tool that helps the user rate the safety of the app they are using. Also Genderit has resources related to women’s and sexual rights issues and internet rights issues.
- Challenge the status quo
Support activists or civil society organisations wanting to give Cyber VAW visibility, change legislation, or ask Social Media companies to amend their policies. And while it is not easy to speak up and consequently it is possible to face harassment online and offline, it might actually be easier to show support for an online campaign against Facebook than to participate to an actual street protest.
In 2013, alerted by survivors of online harassment, a group of activists launched a campaign with the hashtag #FBrape in order to get Facebook to change their policies which banned hate speech but not offensive remarks regarding sexual assault. Labelled as “Controversial Humor”, pages named “I kill bitches like you,” “Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice,” “I Love the Rape Van,” and photos of women being tied up, with bruises or blood on their face were allowed on the social network. The activists contacted private companies who were spending millions on ads on Facebook showing them instances where their ads would appear on a page endorsing violence against women. #FBrape was used for more than 60,000 times and 160 organisations signed a letter asking Facebook to “recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.” The campaign was successful and now Facebook has one of the best reporting systems, according to Take Back the Tech.
Request from companies those services you are using, to take a stand against VAW.
While women have around 25% less access to internet than men, they are a growing demographic. For example, according to trendwatch.com, in the UK there are more girls playing online games than boys. If companies want to keep growing and have profit, they will have to develop their content based on their customers profile. Asking for harassment-free services, women can keep companies accountable to ensure that demeaning, offensive or threatening behaviours do not have a place on their platforms.
- Change the conversation
Do what Isis Anchalee did. Do not just accept stereotyping and misogyny as part of life, but try to show a different perspective. Chances are many people will stand by you.
- Learn to use technology
Even if not at professional level, is important to adopt new technology and platforms because by understanding their features you are not only able to use it to its full potential and join the conversation, but you can also decide if the risks you are getting exposed to are worth it.
- Do not be just a bystander
Not only in the online environment but also in the physical one, bystanders can prevent gender-based violence by choosing to act. Showing comfort to the victim, confronting the perpetrator, asking for help from others or reporting to law enforcement or site administrators can have a great positive impact in addressing VAW cases. While social media amplifies violent thoughts, misogyny and anti social behaviours, it can also be a venue to change cultural and social norms.
- Join the tech sector and/ or learn to code
If you want a career change or you are about to choose your degree, chose to be an engineer.
Tech is a growing industry who could definitely benefit from more women joining. Moreover, coding jobs can allow for flexible work hours, a good alternative for women who would like to have more freedom with their time.
One of the reasons companies are slow to react to online VAW is the huge gender gap in the tech sector. The industry has been grown even more male-dominated today. In the US, women represent today 18% of all computer science graduates, compared to 37% in 1984. Women are the obvious minority in the sector with only 9% of the apps in the EU being created by women. Further, worldwide, 10-15% of high level managers in technology are women. Most of the men employees have a difficult time understanding the degree and implication of their policies and inaction on women’s lives. At the same time women do not join the sector or leave it mid-career due to the discrimination they face.
Tech companies need to do a better job attracting and integrating women. But, by not taking tech jobs, women also miss out on a huge job market which will only grow in the future.
- Be a responsible parent / guardian / teacher
Teach children to respect women. It is never too early to do it.
Controversial reports state that violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’. It is possible that this kind of exposure only contributes to mainstreaming violence instead of keeping it only to the online world. Monitoring the online activities of children combined with appropriate information and education will decrease the likelihood that they will be harassers in the future.
Online harassment keeps women out of the global conversation. Afraid to share their opinions, sometimes to even use social networking websites, women do not get the chance to be informed or to participate in decisions that affect their own lives. Sometimes they do not get the chance to get an education. Sometimes they lose the chance to a fair income.
The first step women and men need to take against online violence is to not be silent.
“Women and girls are using their voices and stories to raise awareness and protest. The battle is far from over, but the inspiring campaigns of women around the world make me feel empowered to keep on fighting.” Laura Bates, Founder of Everyday Sexism Project