Is the internet sexist?

The internet is not kind to women. Like many other areas for that matter. However, one can wonder why, in thirty years, artificial intelligence, networks and more generally the Internet – yet so ubiquitous – have remained so fallow with regard to questions of gender equality and cybermisogyny. “Le Monde” was already interested in the phenomenon in 2015, in an article with the evocative title, “Why is the internet too often hostile to women? », and the reality described seven years ago does not seem to have budged.

Cyberbullying and entrenched stereotypes

In 2021, a duo of Belgian journalists, Myriam Leroy and Florence Hainaut, unveiled the edifying documentary “#SalePute” on cyberbullying, of which a majority of women – including themselves – are victims. According to a report from theUN published in 2017, three quarters of women have already been exposed to cyberviolence. In the United States, they would be three times more exposed to it than men. And when it is not their own person that is attacked – through threats, targeted harassment, degrading remarks, doxing, sharing of intimate content… – it is their integrity.

According to a report by Sciences-Po Paris and the Women’s Foundation published last year, nearly 35% of videos posted on the internet present a degrading image of women. A reality that “installs a vision of society and distorted and detestable social models of male/female relationships”, according to Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, member of the Women’s Foundation. Even their simple online presence is mostly tinged with stereotypes (75%). Among the most common archetypes, we find the sentimental, the doll, the seductress, the venal… For their part, masculine stereotypes are most often associated with positive values ​​(power and courage). In the light of this somewhat depressing observation, it is appropriate to ask a small question: where exactly did it go wrong?

When high-tech becomes a preserve

Perhaps as early as the 80s and 90s, when we witnessed a masculinization of the IT sector. Before that – and this is a largely forgotten part of history, women were not only very present, but they even played a key role in the development of digital technology. Ada Lovelace made the first real computer program. So the first coder was… a coder. 80 years ago, Hedy Lamarr invented the technology behind wifi, GPS and mobile telephony. In short, they broke the game.

In 1983, IT was the second sector with the most female graduates. Researcher Isabelle Collet then tells how the number of women in IT has been halved in the space of 20 years. Whereas until now men considered writing code as a secondary task, the rise of computing is becoming a strategic issue for companies and States. The discipline gains in prestige and the men then rush into it to the detriment of the women. “History shows that when a field of knowledge gains importance in the social world, it becomes more masculinized,” explains Juliette Hanau, author of “I code therefore I am: Women and digital”.

The second reason? The arrival of the microcomputer in the 1970s. “Before that, computer science students had never touched a computer because it was expensive and rare,” explains Juliette Hanau. “They all started out on an equal footing. The arrival of the personal computer will make it possible to equip almost exclusively men in homes. At that time, boys were twice as likely to receive it as a gift than girls and therefore to be exposed to it before them. Even today, 33% of girls are encouraged by their parents to go into Tech, compared to 61% of boys.

A world created by men for men?

A series of phenomena which, combined with sexist stereotypes according to which a computer scientist should necessarily look like Lisbeth Salander, explain that women represent only 17% of the professional workforce. At the same time, the number of positions continues to increase. The good news is that the number of female graduates in the sector continues to increase. The bad news is that this progression is extremely slow.

“Since AIs are programmed by teams made up entirely of men, they tend to be shaped by the prism of a male vision and built around their needs,” says Juliette Hanau. In the same way that airbags and seat belts were designed according to the male morphology (a dangerous or even fatal reality for women, but that is another subject), technology is not neutral and conveys ideas of its creators. Researcher Isabelle Collet has shown that, in its first version, Apple’s Health app did not include any functionality to monitor menstrual cycles. Nobody had thought that this data could influence their state of form.

For its part, Unesco has criticized voice assistants for conveying “sexist prejudice” because of their default female voice and their “docile personality”, and recommends that their developers integrate more women into their teams. A woman in a white coat identified by artificial intelligence gives a nurse and a man in a white coat… a doctor. The most telling example remains the failure of Amazon’s automated hiring system. Trained on the basis of CV templates submitted to the company for a decade (mostly CVs of men), the algorithm automatically penalized CVs of female candidates. “Even if you tell AI algorithms to ignore gender, they find other ways to figure it out,” says University College Dublin researcher Susan Leavy. By learning from data from the past, algorithms “have the ability to set us back decades”.

How do we reverse the trend?

“I don’t think the internet is sexist, it’s just the reflection of a society that still is,” explains Juliette Hanau. “One can wonder: what would the internet have looked like if it had been coded by women? Because digital can also be a place of emancipation and empowerment for women as well as a powerful tool for mobilization. The rise of the Internet and social networks has favored the influence of feminism, which is less obscure and more accessible. Women speak more freely than men. As a result, inspiring pages abound online: Georgette Sand, Les Internettes, Osez le Féminisme, Gang du Clito… In some countries, digitization is even becoming a major issue for the liberation of women. In Somalia, an ultra-conservative country, the first 100% female media (“Bilan Média”) has just been launched, a great first. In the words of Romain Badouard, researcher in information science: “If technologies are not neutral, they are not immutable either. They can be deconstructed to be reinvented. »

So, to our keyboards!

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Is the internet sexist?


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