When The Harassment Of Women Moves Online


The digital world reinforces some of the gender inequalities. The UN Women reports that “a large gender gap continues in technology and innovation, despite recent improvements. Women and girls are underrepresented in industries, academia and the broader technology sector.” Women hold just 22% of positions in artificial intelligence. Furthermore, among the 20 largest global technology companies, “women are 33% of the workforce in 2022 but hold only one in four leadership positions. Women inventors make up only 16.5% of inventors listed on international patent applications globally.” 37% of women do not use the Internet. 259 million fewer women have access to the Internet than men, even though they account for nearly half the world’s population. Furthermore, while providing many opportunities for women, the digital world poses many challenges, including in the form of online harassment that will further affect the digital gender gap.

Online harassment does not have a uniform definition and differs between jurisdictions. Online harassment generally concerns the use of information and communication technologies by an individual or group to cause harm to another person. The Council of Europe identifies three types of online and technology-facilitated violence against women, including online sexual harassment, online stalking and psychological violence.

According to the Council of Europe, online sexual harassment includes: “cyber flashing – or sending unsolicited sexual images – sexualized comments, sexualized defamation, sexualized slander, impersonation for sexual purposes and doxing, as well as sexualized and gender-based trolling, flaming, mob attacks; image-based sexual harassment such as creepshots (sexually suggestive or private pictures taken without consent and shared online); upskirting (sexual or private pictures taken under the skirt or dress without consent and shared online); image-based sexual abuse (non-consensual image or video sharing, or non-consensual intimate image – NCII – or revenge porn); deepfakes; recorded sexual assault and rape, including ‘happy slapping’(either live-streamed or distributed on pornographic sites); threats and coercion such as forced sexting; sextortion; rape threats; incitement to commit rape.”

Among others, psychological violence here means “online sexist hate speech and incitement to self-harm or suicide, verbal attacks, insults, death threats, pressure, blackmail, deadnaming (revealing someone’s former name against their wishes for the purposes of harm).”

A study of 51 countries revealed 38% of women had personally experienced online harassment. “Only 1 in 4 reported it to the relevant authorities and nearly 9 in 10 opted to limit their online activity, thereby increasing the gender digital divide.” These trends were only exacerbated during the pandemic. Another study, by the Pew Research Center, states that “women are more likely than men to report having been sexually harassed online (16% vs. 5%) or stalked (13% vs. 9%). Young women are particularly likely to have experienced sexual harassment online. Fully 33% of women under 35 say they have been sexually harassed online, while 11% of men under 35 say the same.” While the Pew Research Center data concerns the United States, it illustrates the contours of the global situation.

The Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023 indicated that Evidence also shows that social media in particular are subject to abusive use, and that women and girls are often confronted with violent and sexualized threats online. Particular platforms acting as conveyers of sexist hate speech include social media or video games. Freedom of expression is often abused as an excuse to cover unacceptable and offensive behavior. In the same way as with other forms of violence against women, sexist hate speech remains under-reported, but its impact on women, whether emotional, psychological and/or physical can be devastating, especially for young girls and women.” Such online harassment will only add to the digital gender gap.

As we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, it is crucial to look into ways to address the digital gender gap to make sure that women and girls can make the best of the opportunities. However, as many aspects of our lives move online, so has the harassment that many women and girls experience. The digital world is not a safe space. While the forms of online harassment are ever-evolving, it is crucial to find ways to address these new challenges.

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