Gender and Digital Engagement

by | March 17, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

IMG_1681by Jarrah Hodge

Since last year I’ve had the honour of being part of the City of Vancouver’s Women’s Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of 16 fabulous women from diverse backgrounds who come together out of a commitment to women’s equality, to making sure gender is mainstreamed in municipal policy, and to improving women’s engagement in civic life.

Each month we meet and provide input to the City of Vancouver on a range of issues from the Transportation 2020 report and bike sharing to recruiting and retaining women firefighters and following up on the Missing Women’s Inquiry’s recommendations to the VPD.

City of Vancouver Women's Advisory Committee

City of Vancouver Women’s Advisory Committee

This year for International Women’s Day our committee put on a brown-bag lunch for city staff. Hoping to help the City as it moves forward with developing its digital strategy, the committee asked me to give a talk on gender and digital engagement. I talked fairly broadly about the benefits and challenges for women engaging online, particularly highlighting concerns about online harassment. I was really impressed by questions that came up in the Q&A, for example on how we engage diverse communities such as people of colour who don’t feel comfortable being in a session just for their ethnic group.

I don’t have great solutions for this but fundamentally I think it comes down to having many different paths of engagement – options for people who feel more comfortable in groups where others share their background and for those who want to participate in a larger session. I also think online engagement can’t replace in-person engagement because some people will always feel more comfortable coming in that way. If any readers know of success stories and best practices in this area, please share and I will pass it back on to the City.

Anyway, here is the written speech I was working off of, along with links to some of the reports I referenced:

Hi everyone. Thanks for coming and having me chat with you today. International Women’s Day was last Friday and it’s a great chance to look back on the achievements of the women’s movement, but also looking forward about how we tackle the gaps that still exist. That’s what I’m going to focus on today.

It’s really exciting to see the City taking a leadership role in developing a digital strategy. I think there’s a lot of great potential to get a broader cross-section of citizens engaged with municipal issues and developing community.

As a feminist blogger and someone who’s very active on social media, I wanted to talk about the gaps in women’s equality in online spaces and suggest some facts and principles to take into consideration when building digital engagement.

Overall we have about a 2% gender gap in internet use in Canada. We’ve seen this go down over time but we know we can’t assume that letting the problem resolve itself is an adequate solution. It’s good to see the City acknowledge this in the strategy – that there will have to be a pro-active effort to get diverse groups of people trained and online. Otherwise they might catch up eventually but it gives more privileged groups of people a big head start and allows them to set the tone for the community.

This is something I struggle with in feminist blogging. At Gender Focus I’m really trying to make sure diverse voices are heard but I’m part of a movement where the most visible leaders continue to be white middle-class, able-bodied straight women like me. Of course there are many women who don’t fit that mould doing amazing work but they don’t get as much credit and it can make it hard for other marginalized women to look at the feminist community and immediately feel included.

But let’s take a step back and look at the basics of how someone gets engaged.

So first, in order to have engagement you need to have access. That goes beyond just technical access to a computer and the internet. We have to consider differing degrees of access like is someone using the drop-in internet at the library where it’s time-limited and there’s limited privacy?

A 2010 Industry Canada Report showed fewer than 50% of Canadian internet users were characterized as high-intensity users (daily and for more than 5 hours/week) so those are probably the people most likely to be engaging (Intensity of Internet Use in Canada: Understanding Different Types of Users, .pdf).

Next, users need to have the skills, not just knowing the jargon and technical skills but also that they feel confident enough to communicate in the online community you’re trying to get them to participate in.

The same Industry Canada report found new users take time to be comfortable using internet for communication. 96% of experienced users engage in online communication, compared to 73% of new users, who mostly use internet for searching.

One of the biggest issues around women engaging online is a lack of confidence. The Oxford Internet Survey found even accounting for length of internet experience, women rate their abilities lower than men do. This is consistent with a range of psychological research showing women tend to underestimate their abilities compared to men and to third-party assessments. That comes from a range of messages we get right from the time we’re girls, including the incorrect idea that women are naturally not as good at science, math and technology as men.

The other issue is fear and increased risk of experiencing online sexual harassment and cyberstalking. At the Women’s Advisory Committee we were providing input into the City’s Transportation Plan a  few months ago and talked about how women don’t feel as safe on transit at night and that inhibits use. Same goes with online spaces. The Oxford survey showed considerably more women than men to report being afraid of having an unpleasant and unsafe online experience.

The more I hear from other women engaging in online communities, the more it seems that the mere fact of being a woman on the internet is enough to invite harassment and cyberbullying. There’s a good Tumblr that a friend of mine set up called Facebook Sexism that catalogs a lot of examples.

I put out a 2 minute video last year politely saying, you know, feminists don’t actually hate men. In addition to all the YouTube trolls telling me to stop whining and go make them a sandwich, I got this anonymous comment on my blog, “Stupid c-words like you have the nerve to say feminists don’t hate men? You’re a goddamned liar and I wish that someone kills you. Hopefully it will be me. I mean that with all my heart.”

Turned out the guy was in Wisconsin but I have to give great credit to the VPD for taking the threat seriously.

A couple weeks ago I was alerted by someone on Twitter that someone on Facebook had stolen my headshot and was using it as the profile picture for a fake anti-marijuana page. Under my picture the person was baiting people and by the time I found my pictures there there were hundreds of comments saying how ugly and fat I was, how I should head-butt a gun, how much I needed a good lay. I got the pictures taken down but it’s hard to get your confidence back after being attacked like that, and I think I have a pretty thick skin.

Almost uniformly, the social networks do a terrible job at dealing with these types of incidents. YouTube for example won’t let you report someone harassing someone else – they have to harass you. And even if they do shut down an account it’s too easy for trolls to set up another 8 or 9 fake ones.

So these are challenges but of course one of the reasons we do online engagement is because it can have positive spin-off effects. It can help people who previously felt socially isolated feel part of a community – a great example of this is how some queer youth have been able to use the internet to gather information and build support networks even if they don’t feel able to come out to “real-life” friends and relatives.  For some others, new online skills can transfer and help the person find more information on employment, housing, or social services.

So it’s all about striking a balance between protecting users from harassment and invasions of their privacy while also creating the conditions that a community needs to thrive.

Before I wrap up I want to note a very important point, which is that all these barriers to women’s online engagement are impacted by other factors like physical disability, age, race, and poverty. These all affect how much time someone’s going to have to devote to building the skills needed for online engagement, as well as their willingness to trust that their voice will be heard and respected in the community.

That’s most of what I had to talk about for today but I’m happy to answer any questions anyone might have.


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