Mapping gaps in research in gender and information society

10 September 2017

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Since the World Summit on Information Society to now there have been several shifts in the field of gender and information society. The dominant discourse during WSIS 2003 and 2005 was infomation communication technology for development (ICT4D) and since then there has been a shift towards a framework centred more around human rights rather than programmatic and fixed ideas of what constitutes development. At the same time the euphoria around the use of technology for social change was particularly blunted over the next decade by the increasing use of tactics of biopower by State governments.

In the 2000s the work by feminist groups and the women’s movement online on forms of online gender based violence was in particular responsible for shifting the focus away from looking only at the emancipatory potential of technology. The internet can be a terrain of violence and surveillance. Given the ways in which technologies of control are meshed with biopower in the contemporary, these misgivings by advocates for women’s rights seem prophetic almost.

In the 2000s the work by feminist groups and the women’s movement online on forms of online gender based violence was in particular responsible for shifting the focus away from looking only at the emancipatory potential of technology. The internet can be a terrain of violence and surveillance.

Over time, the engagement around gender and ICTs has developed across many different sectors - from online GBV to movements, datafication to labour, and so on. A literature review across the decade from 2006 to now reveals the main thematics around which feminists, activists and researchers have crystallised their efforts. Particularly in relation to research and writing the thematics are:

  • Access and inclusion - meaningful access, digital literacy, disability
  • Economy and labour - technology and labour, women in STEM, exploitative labour in low and middle income countries
  • Embodiment and agency - online GBV, sexuality and free speech, datafication
  • Movement building - role of technology and social media in movements, women’s participation in policy making

This editorial is divided into two parts.

Anri Van Der Spuy looks at what she thinks are the gaps in the research taking place around access and embodiment. This covers a range of issues ranging from rural-urban divide in access, online GBV and datafication.

Namita Aavriti looks at the gaps in relation to research around economy and labour, and then at movement building and ICTs.

Access and Embodiment
Anri Van Der Spuy

Promoting women’s access by tackling the data conundrum

The challenge of promoting women’s access to the Internet and other ICTs has drawn more attention in recent years – at least as far as reports, initiatives and efforts are concerned. These include the work of a plethora of intergovernmental and other organizations, civil society organizations; research institutions; as well as (albeit contentiously) various private sector organizations. But despite these and other efforts, the gap between men and women accessing the Internet has not really improved. (Indeed, some recent statistics from the ITU indicate that it is getting worse.) Why is this the case?

From a research perspective, we still don’t have an accurate picture of the so-called “digital gender divide". The capacity and will to consistently and rigorously gather gender-disaggregated data is still lacking in many developing countries, which tend to prioritise other development challenges above data gathering. A significant proportion of the research available is furthermore global in focus. While useful in providing a big-picture view of the situation, global research does little to enable a thorough understanding of the underlying local factors that hinder women from accessing and using ICTs. When statistics and research do exist, it sometimes neglects qualitative measures in favour of quantitative ones (or vice versa); a tendency which often masks underlying barriers and causes. It also tends to assume a limited focus on mere access or inclusion as opposed to studying broader and more entrenched factors that enable or hinder access to be universal, acceptable, affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful and equal access. And, rather disconcertingly, some of the research produced by rather dominant stakeholders in the field is, at the very least, questionable and, in some cases, simply bad.

While useful in providing a big-picture view of the situation, global research does little to enable a thorough understanding of the underlying local factors that hinder women from accessing and using ICTs. When statistics and research do exist, it sometimes neglects qualitative measures in favour of quantitative ones (or vice versa); a tendency which often masks underlying barriers and causes.

Taken together, this data conundrum means that policymaking in the field is sometimes based on incorrect assumptions that do little to meet local needs. There is therefore a clear need for more gender-disaggregated data and locally relevant data to facilitate evidence-based action and movement building towards sustainable change.

Towards lexical certainty for women’s rights

Promoting women’s access to ICTs is rather hollow without fostering women’s agency and rights, particularly privacy and freedom of expression. A substantial amount of recent literature and policy statements delve into and laud the potential significance of ICT access for promoting women’s rights and development – most recently recognised in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A smaller, but growing, number of efforts investigate how ICTs can also harm women and can aggravate inequality, including through surveillance and online abuse. And there is even less literature that critically contemplate the potentially detrimental effects of, for example, big data and new surveillance technologies for women’s human rights, particularly privacy and freedom of expression where women in developing countries are concerned. Indeed, much of the literature that is available tend to struggle with lexical uncertainty around offline-online effects of women’s rights infringements, aggravated by a general lack of awareness of human rights in general and women’s (digital) rights in particular.

A smaller, but growing, number of efforts investigate how ICTs can also harm women and can aggravate inequality, including through surveillance and online abuse. And there is even less literature that critically contemplate the potentially detrimental effects of, for example, big data and new surveillance technologies for women’s human rights, particularly privacy and freedom of expression where women in developing countries are concerned.

Considering the growing emphasis on SDG monitoring and alignment, there is a need for more consistent research into how data practices on and of ICTs, along with the ways in which data is governed, can help to empower and exploit women and sustainable development. To better study and understand evolving forms of online abuse and gender-based violence, there is a related need for research aimed at promoting more lexical certainty into understanding these human rights infringements and their effects in all dimensions. Where surveillance is concerned, there is a need for more feminist and gendered investigations of the impact of state, social and self-surveillance on women’s rights and freedoms.

Economy and Movement-building
Namita Aavriti

Information economy and gender

The research around gender and ICTs that is linked to economy is largely around questions of entrepreneurship and labour, women’s participation in STEM (science and technology), and diversity in technology spaces. What is somewhat paradoxical is that while women in corporate and technology spaces in high and middle income countries are being advised to lean-in , there exists a labour force substantially made up of women in Asia and Africa working in manufacturing and mining industries for technology companies and in business process outsourcing.

There is not enough research informed by a feminist framework that looks at the varied ways in which systemic inequalities are perpetuated and in fact are expanding because of neoliberalism and globalisation, and especially how this effects a large proportion of women who are poor. What in particular has slipped between the gaps is effective monitoring and research of several projects and initiatives that took on the task of addressing either women’s' rights or gender equity, but have never been analysed in terms of the impact that they have had, the practices of exclusion and discrimination within the projects.

The critique within the women's movement that black feminists in USA mounted after the 1960s (some of the important figures in this period include bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw) of its disregard for structural inequalities within and amongst women on account of race - has been made more complicated on grounds of gender expression (trans, intersex, gender non conforming), caste, ethnicity, class, colourism, ability. While feminist analysis has always centered an enquiry into structure, power relations and gender dynamics, this has not necessarily translated to the women's movement in totality, or sexuality based movements either. It is this structural and feminist analysis into economy and labour that is required and will inform not just the struggles of the women’s movement, but broader movements in relation to internet rights, climate change and environment, labour movements, and inequity, poverty and injustice in different contexts.

The critique within the women's movement that black feminists in USA mounted after the 1960s of its disregard for structural inequalities within and amongst women on account of race - has been made more complicated on grounds of gender expression (trans, intersex, gender non conforming), caste, ethnicity, class, colourism, ability.

How do we build movements

In our current context of image saturated multinational late capitalism, it is hard to distinguish between the mediatised outbursts and the coming together of people to produce change. Movements are rarely only what is visible in the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the mobile phones recording and slogans chanted in the revolution in 2011 in Egypt, the crowds of women gathered demanding change in the rape law in India. When these mobilisations take place in the global South there is especially a tendency to technologize and romanticise the movements. Much of the movements that are built and emerge in a technological spotlight have been labouring in and away from the public eye for years, even centuries. The history of Dalit autobiographies and storytelling is the foundation of what Smita Patil in an article in this edition points to as the 'new' discourses taking place online.

When these mobilisations take place in the global South there is especially a tendency to technologize and romanticise the movements. Much of the movements that are built and emerge in a technological spotlight have been labouring in and away from the public eye for years, even centuries.

It is now well accepted that technology and social media play a role in movements through dissemination of stories, the building of momentum and cascades of anger and fury around images and videos shared. But from self-determination struggles like that in Palestine or from the crackdown post the ‘Arab Spring’, it is evident that biopower exacted and managed through different means (of identity cards, biometrics, surveillance, blocking and shutdowns etc.) reveal a terrifying flip side of how technologies of control might in fact play a larger role in shaping the collective future of humanity.

As such the entire domain of movements and the role of technology and social media remains relatively less researched, either because of the sporadic nature of such mobilisations that often fall outside of efforts by civil society and government. Like the Nirbhaya moment in India or the Ni Una Menos protests in Argentina and across Latin America where thousands of people agitated for the rights of women and against sexual violence, the movement is often too vast and the affiliations too complex to be easily understood. In different spaces, online and offline conversations and debates of huge significance and urgency are taking place within movements.

  • How can feminists be reconciled with demands for death penalty for rapists and offenders, while knowing that incarceration unfairly impacts those vulnerable and already discriminated against?
  • How does a movement increasingly fractured within itself (divisions between lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, intersex and gender non conforming people in particular) begin to explain the deep fissures between the groups and to find new communities?
  • How does a struggle for self determination of people (whether the Kurdish movement, or people in Palestine, Manipur or Kashmir) find its own vocabulary for questions around gender and sexuality within their own practice and politics?

It is in the new spaces and openings produced by movements that changes in habits and discourse become possible, and it is here too that research and writing could (and does) play a productive role that enhances the potential of movements for change.

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