During the past year there has been an explosion of research about, and public interest in, the tech industry’s persistent diversity problems. A story this week in Newsweek, for example, describes the industry as “savagely misogynistic”. At the same time, there has been increased awareness regarding the reality and effects of online abuse. The two issues are not separate, but gendered and dynamically related. Tech’s institutionalised male dominance, and the sex segregation and hierarchies of its workforce, have serious and harmful effects globally on women’s safety and free expression. Consider, for example, what is generally called online “harassment”.
Men and women are having very different online experiences. For women the spectrum of what we call “harassment” is much broader, multifaceted and sustained. One of the primary reasons so many social media companies struggle with responding to online abuse on their platforms is that reporting and complaint systems fail to appreciate these differences. Their founders, managers, engineers are not only not well-versed in these experiences, but, as stories that now regularly punctuate the news cycle show, are sometimes perpetrating the abuses. That systems reinforce the stereotypes and implicit biases of the people who are designing them is old news. What is new news, however, is that the internet makes the effects much more evident.
First, some baseline demographics. The industry is overwhelmingly male and labour is sex segregated. Some examples: Twitter’s staff is 70 per cent male, with men making up 79 per cent of leadership and a whopping 90 per cent of the engineering staff. Fifty-nine per cent of employees are white. There is a similar gender gap at Facebook, where 85 per cent of the tech staff are men. Overall, the company is 69 per cent male, 63 per cent white. At Google, men make up 70 per cent of the staff, but 83 per cent of the tech departments. Only 2 per cent of Google employees are black. At 40 per cent, Asians make up make up a large and growing percentage of people in the industry, however, this is primarily Asian-American men who, as industry expert Anil Dash explained last October, “are benefitting from tech’s systematic exclusion of women and non-Asian minorities”.
These statistics inform a profound epistemological imbalance that results in inadequate tech solutions to women’s user problems. This in turn affects the ways that men and women participate the public sphere. Online harassment of men is not as severe or sustained as that of women. It’s also less likely to be focused on their gender. It is most frequently name-calling and designed to embarrass. A Pew Research study identifying these differences recently described this kind of harassment as “a layer of annoyance so common that those who see or experience it say they often ignore it”. Women, on the other hand, cannot ignore their online abuse: they are more than three times as likely to report having been stalked online and more than twice as likely to be sexually harassed. They make up more than 90 per cent of victims of revenge porn and are overwhelming the subjects of rape videos. A report from Bytes for All in Pakistan last year documented the ways in which technology driven violence against women in social media is exacerbating real world violence. In India, police are grappling with what they call a “revenge porn economy”, being fuelled by gang-rape videos in social media used to extort women. In the United States, a law firm today announced a cyber civil rights project designed to help women whose partners abusively share photography without their consent. According to a survey conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence in the United States, 89 per cent of shelters report that victims are experiencing intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email. That women are having these experiences online in disproportion to men mirrors the offline realities of women’s daily calibrations to pervasive harm, the fact of which consistently surprises their male counterparts.
Women are far more likely to report electronic harassment as part of ongoing intimate partner violence and are more likely to report that their online harassment is sustained over longer periods of time. People who experience more sustained, invasive and physically threatening abuse online report higher levels of stress and emotional disturbance. In the Pew study, 38 per cent of women report being very upset by their most recent incident of online abuse, compared with 17 per cent of men. Necessarily more attuned to having to avoid violence or to living with it, women also incur greater costs dealing with harassment. The Pew research found that women are more than twice as likely to take multiple steps to try and address abuse. The toll on their lives can be steep and the actions necessary to address the problem take time, energy and money. Blithely unaware of these differences, male dominated corporate bodies tend towards thinking women are exaggerating their concerns, or are oversensitive “drama queens” who should, as many people think, either “grow up or get out of the kitchen if they can’t stand the heat”.
A reporting system that was designed to appreciate women’s experiences with harassment and discrimination would provide reporting tools that do, at the very least, six things: one, make it easy to report multiple incidents at the same time; two, provide a way for users to explain context or cross-platform harassment; three, have moderators who are trained to understand the reality of women’s safety needs; four, have guidelines that define “legitimate threat” in a way that isn’t only the threat of the kind of “imminent violence”, usually perpetrated by a stranger and most often experienced by a man, but the less visible, more pervasive, harms suffered by women at the hands of people they know; five, give users maximum privacy controls; and, lastly, provide options would allow users to designate surrogates or proxies who can step in to track and report incidents.
Instead, most current systems, almost without fail, do the opposite. Moderators responsible for content and complaints, regardless of gender, are making decisions based not just on the information they are reviewing, but on the way in which the information flows – linear, acontextual and isolated from other incidents. They are reliant, despite their best efforts, on technical systems that provide insufficient context, scale, frequency or scope. In addition, they lack specific training in trauma (their own or users) and in understanding gender-based violence. It’s no surprise that they appear to be tone-deaf to women’s needs when interpreting guidelines, the
Guidelines speak to a salient issue, namely, many companies are spending a great deal of time employing people, most frequently women, to work on community management and customer service, divorced – functionally, spatially, culturally, hierarchically – from systems engineers and senior team management. Moderation systems are overtaxed because of inadequately informed technology tools and business cultures. More egalitarian and empathetic systems architectures would probably obviate the need for a profusion of every-changing and frequently problematic guidelines.
Unfortunately, gender and racial imbalances are shared by the venture capitalists that fund tech, which means that women and minorities are also inhibited from access to the resources that would enable them to innovate alternate solutions. Fewer than 3 per cent of companies that get capitalised have women CEOs.
There is nothing particularly unique about this situation. We live in a world that, until very recently, was designed entirely by men. It affects everything from the way cars are built, jobs are chosen and bathrooms are designed, to how medicine is researched and implemented and laws are written and enforced. In tech, new products routinely reveal the invisibility of women to designers. However, this isn’t about one-off apps that can be tweaked and relaunched, and the potential outcomes of tech sexism, implicit or not, can’t be underestimated or rapidly fixed. Women, we are often told, tend to use social media sites slightly more than their male peers. However, today it is estimated that there are 200 million fewer women online than men. There are many reasons for that gap and the construction of internet platforms is not to blame. However, if these systemic biases are not addressed that gender gap will continue to grow, with long-lasting global economic and social effects. Funding summer tech camps for girls is a great idea, but, ultimately, it’s just scratching the surface.
Last year may have been a turning point in terms of public awareness and women coming forward with their experiences.Google has been training its staff to understand implicit bias. Intel announced a $300m initiative focused on increasing overall diversity and, specifically, the number of women in computer science (currently at a very backlash 39-year low). Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are working with advocacy groups to address harassment. These are positive signs that there is greater understanding of the idea that technology is socially constructed and can be socially de- and reconstructed. In the meantime, however, we have lost a generation of women’s innovative potential to a fully integrated, socially cultivated, self-perpetuating misogyny all suited up in progressive ingenuity.