New UN commissioned report offers policy recommendations to address digital gender divide

Monday 10 Aug 2020

The digital revolution offers great potential for improving social and economic outcomes for women. However, it also poses the risk of perpetuating existing patterns of gender inequality. A new paper published today (Monday 10 August) considers the relationship between gender and technology and offers key policy recommendations for using technology to advance gender equality. Recommendations include those on the gender data gap, and the need for ethical frameworks for auditing and governing AI technologies.  

The paper, commissioned by UN Women, is entitled ‘The Digital Revolution: Implications for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights 25 Years after Beijing’ and is authored by Judy Wajcman, Erin Young and Anna FitzMaurice, researchers from the Women in data science and AI research project in the Turing’s public policy programme. 

The paper focuses on three key areas in order to identify opportunities and risks in the digital revolution: education, work, and social/welfare services. First, the authors examine the ways in which the digital skills gap in the education sector can lead to the encoding of gender biases in technology, how education technologies might help or hinder the situation, and the masculine stereotypes within STEM fields. Second, they consider the implications for women of the changing world of work, showing how the underrepresentation of women in technical fields partakes in a feedback loop, amplifying gender bias in AI and machine learning systems. Third, they look at the benefits and risks of the implementation of automated decision-making in social and welfare services, arguing that the human rights of the most vulnerable are especially at risk in the digital welfare state. 

The authors argue that technology alone cannot address the systematic problems driving the digital gender divide and to encourage women and girls’ full participation and inclusion in the digital revolution the focus should be on creating concrete policy actions. They make nine policy recommendations in different areas to help address stereotypes, practices and norms in technology that lead to discrimination against women:  

  1. Governments should ensure that new technologies are developed within a regulatory framework that prioritises, protects and promotes women’s human rights.  
  2. Ethical frameworks for auditing, monitoring and governance of (AI) technologies must put gender equality at their core.  
  3. Gender analysis must be an integral part of technological investment, research and design.  
  4. National governments must tackle the gender data gap, both in terms of quantity and quality, while maintaining privacy and data protection as the highest concern.   
  5. Universities, schools and other educational institutions must develop the advanced technical skills and digital literacy of women and girls so that they can reap the benefits of the digital revolution.  
  6. Education and training on women’s rights-compliant technology is needed for those designing, developing and using AI in decision-making.  
  7. Policymakers must examine exclusionary practices and language, encourage men to become strong allies and promote women role models and mentors in STEM.  
  8. Companies, particularly in the tech sector, must incorporate gender mainstreaming -  this means assessing the implications for different genders of any planned action (i.e. including policies or programmes) in all areas and at all levels in human resources policy so that women and men are given equal access to well-paid jobs and careers.  
  9. Policymakers must develop gender-inclusive labour market policies, such as paid maternity/parental leave and affordable childcare. 

The Turing’s Research Fellow Dr Erin Young said that:

“The pandemic has not only exposed but increased existing inequities. As such it is all the more crucial that technology fosters equality rather than perpetuating existing power structures.”

She goes on to say, however, that it does “offer an opportunity for us to rethink, and redress, equality and the role of technical systems in this. The recommendations offered in our new report can help address the digital divide, advising more inclusive and democratic practices of technological research and development.”

Notes to editors: 

  1. The report is available to download
  2. Professor Judy Wajcman is a Turing Fellow and the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE), Dr Erin Young is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute on the Women in Data Science and AI project, within the Public Policy programme and Anna FitzMaurice is a Data Scientist at the BBC. 
  3. This report was commissioned as a background paper for the UN Women Expert Group Meeting (EGM) “Beijing +25: Current context, emerging issues and prospects for gender equality and women’s rights”, held at the Centre for Global Affairs, New York University, 25-26 September 2019. The EGM and the commissioned papers formed part of the substantive preparations for the 64th session of the Commission on the Status Women, including the Report of the Secretary General that reviews progress, gaps and challenges in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action published in January 2020. It also informed UN Women’s report Women’s Rights in Review 25 Years After Beijing. 
  4. For more information visit our Women in data science and AI project and additional resources