How digital principles can help tackle gender inequality


Wrote this post for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Plan endorsing the Principles for Digital Development. 

The fictional kingdom of Wakanda, in the box-office hit Black Panther, is a highly technologically advanced, affluent, closed-off kingdom. To outsiders, it presents itself as poor, partly because its rulers don’t want the kingdom’s powerful technology to end up in the wrong hands. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the Wakandans' concerns regarding misuse of their technology are valid. 

Isolation, however, becomes increasingly untenable. At the end of the film, Black Panther – now rightfully the kingdom’s ruler – decides to open up and share their technological advances with the world. 

In ending their isolation and embarking on a new road to use their tech for good, one can only hope the Wakandans are following the Principles for Digital Development.

The power of tech for good

Designed to help development practitioners successfully integrate technology into programming, they are a set of nine best practice guidelines, written for and by international development actors. To date, they have been endorsed by over 100 UN agencies, INGOs, tech companies, and civil society groups. And today, Plan International has joined that community by formally endorsing the Principles. 

Much like the Wakandans, we at Plan International believe in the power of tech for good and want to use it to advance children’s rights and equality for girls all over the world. We know it can work: we have seen first hand how an app is preventing child marriages in Bangladesh, how a predictive text keyboard is breaking gender stereotypes, and how virtual learning environments are making education accessible to girls who would otherwise be left without. 

But we are also aware of the risks. Risks related to dealing with data on vulnerable groups, the harassment and bullying that girls face online, and the potential of technology, and particularly artificial intelligence, to further entrench gender inequality, by reproducing current and historical biases.  

The potential benefits outweigh the risks, but only when technology is used thoughtfully and responsibly. Which is where the Principles of Digital Development come in, as best practice guidelines that will help us use digital technologies increasingly effectively and responsibly so that 100 million girls can learn, lead, decide and thrive

Using the Principles to steer our work

Already, the Principles have guided our extensive work on digital birth registration, and, more recently, our ground-breaking work on OpenCRVS, a software platform for rights-based civil registration and vital statistics.

Central to the latter is the principle of openness. Recognising the need to create a global good that can be re-used and improved over time, OpenCRVS will be built on open source technology. The system will also be built on the principles of open standards and open architecture so that it can work with and complement existing systems of registration.

How we practice the Principles is further evident in our Free To Be crowdsourced city safety maps, which recently launched in 5 cities around the world following a successful pilot in Melbourne. At the heart of the initiative has been designing with the user, i.e. girls and young women.

“I was proud to be part of developing Free to Be because it’s designed by young women like me, for young women, to help make our streets safer,” said Alice Rummery, a university student who helped co-design the Sydney city safety map for Plan International Australia. “I don’t want to have to change my behaviour so that I’m not harassed. I want decision makers, authorities and men to act.”

Digital Principles with a gender lens

Our endorsement of the Principles for Digital Development is a statement of how we intend to use tech for good. But we also intend to give back to the Principles community by looking at the Principles through the lens of gender.

Given the digital gender gap, a key question for us not only how we can use tech for good, but how we can and must use tech to further gender equality and bridge the digital divide. This involves not just designing with the user, but designing with girls and women; not just understanding the ecosystem, but also its gendered dimensions; not just being data-driven, but recognising that there are significant gaps when it comes to availability of gender-disaggregated data. 

Gender inequalities in the real world are reflected in the digital. So while Plan International doesn’t have the revolutionary high tech of Wakanda with which to make the world a better place, we do have expertise and insights on patriarchal structures and how to break these, both online and off. And that’s something the kingdom of Wakanda could learn from too.

Don't let tech leave girls behind

Photo by G. Van Buggenhout for Plan International. 

Photo by G. Van Buggenhout for Plan International. 

Wrote this piece for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Girls in ICT Day 2018. 

If Alexa or Siri could, they’d probably be saying “Me too”. But they haven’t been programmed that way. Instead, these personal assistant bots are more likely to be evasive or even respond positively when sexually harassed. While officially genderless, both Siri and Alexa have feminine names and default female voices; it’s hard not to see their evasion as condoning the sexual harassment of women. 

Neither Siri nor Alexa of course have a mind of their own. They have been programmed to respond to prompts in one way or another. Last year, digital news outlet Quartz tested how they respond to sexual harassment: in response to “You’re a slut”, Siri said “I’d blush if I could”. Someone had programmed it that way. 

I bet that person was a man: some three-quarters of staff in tech firms are.

Girls must be encouraged to create

The digital gender divide is particularly large when it comes to girls and women as creators of technology. As AI becomes ubiquitous, this is increasingly a problem: without girls' and women's perspectives, we risk creating tools, solutions, and systems that reproduce and perpetuate existing gender inequalities – as well as fail to address the unique issues and challenges girls and women face.

This is not merely a hypothetical risk. Already, we’ve seen “comprehensive” health apps that come without period trackers because the developers didn’t see menstruation as a core bodily function worth tracking. Research has shown that AI-powered facial recognition systems are particularly poor at recognising darker skinned women’s faces. And machines currently provide gender-biased translationacross languages, assuming someone who is a nurse, for example, is always a woman.

This is a problem. Women and girls constitute half of the world’s inhabitants, and if we’re not involved in creating our common digital future, it will be created for us. 

Getting tech into the hands of girls

As a girls’ rights organisation, Plan International is working to get technology and technical skills into the hands of girls themselves. We believe it is vital to provide girls in developing countries, including those without access to formal education, with opportunities to themselves create technology and digital solutions that address their needs – which is essential. A "brogrammer" in Silicon Valley is unlikely to understand what benefits a teenage girl in Ecuador could gain from technology.

We walk the talk too. In Uganda and Ethiopia, we have set up SmartUp Factory innovation hubs, where marginalised youth – including girls – can access and try out digital tools and technologies. In an environment that is safe for and encouraging of girls, they are supported to develop their own solutions for communal problems using methodologies such as human-centred design. 

In Timor-Leste, Plan International has worked with girls and young women to develop the country’s first sexual and reproductive health app, designed to provide youth with easy access to reliable information on topics they often have no one to ask about. And in China, we have worked with teachers to influence their views on which gender is more “suitable” for careers in ICT. 

This work is important. If we don’t want women looking for a job online to be less likely to be showntargeted ads for high-paying roles than their male counterparts, and if don’t want AI to be more likely to label people who are cooking and cleaning as women, but people who are playing sports and shooting as men, we need to increase the number of women engaged in creating technology. 

Digital equality will help create an equal society

We also need to make technology our ally. Beyond creating digital tools and solutions that address the needs of girls and women, like apps to improve street safety or ones that connect mothers and mothers-to-be, we need to explore the potential of creating gender transformative technology, i.e. tech that seeks to transform unequal gender power relations and actively challenges the prevailing status quo. 

An example of this type of tech is Sheboard, a predictive text app developed by Plan International in Finland together with girls and young women. The app works just like a regular keyboard, but challenges prevailing gender stereotypes of girls being primarily pretty or beautiful, by suggesting empowering words such as “strong”, “smart”, and “clever”, following phrases like “I am” or “my daughter is”.

The future is digital, and if the majority of humankind is not involved in creating that future, we’re in trouble. Instead of allowing tech to perpetuate gender inequality, let’s harness its power for the opposite and create a gender equal society where no one loses out. 



Human rights in the tech sector

Many INGOs, including the one I work for, are keen on increasing the use of technology and digital solutions in their work. It's pretty well recognised that this should be done responsibly, in the sense that tech is used where it makes sense: to extend reach, amplify voices and improve cost efficiency. All good things. 

What gets discussed less often, however, is if the tech and tools we use are themselves responsibly produced, and whether that's any of our business. 

Unfortunately, the tech sector is fraught with human rights violations at almost every level. Amnesty International recently published a report outlining how major electronics and electric vehicle companies have failed to address documented human rights abuses in their supply chain, specifically relating to child labour in the mining of cobalt in the DRC.

Cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries, and more than half of the world's cobalt comes from the DRC. According to Amnesty's report, none of the leading tech companies are taking adequate action to comply with international standards on company practices, such as conducting due diligence checks on their supply chain and being transparent on human rights risks.

Workers' rights are a concern at other levels of the supply chain too. The "Foxconn suicides" of a few years ago brought to the fore the very poor working conditions of the millions of people of who assemble our phones and other gadgets in highly secretive factories in China. It's hard to know what improvements have been made since then.  

There are also environmental concerns. Some relate to the impacts of the mining of materials used in tech; others to short product life-cycles and e-waste. The energy consumption of technology also needs to be addressed. 

Recently, as the price of bitcoins has sky-rocketed, stories of the blockchain-based cryptocurrency's large energy consumption have gone viral. While the situation isn't as dire as some claim, and bitcoin's use of energy doesn't necessarily reflect that of all other blockchain uses, making sure tech not only enables its users to live greener lives, but in itself is as environmentally friendly as possible, must be on the agenda.     

We are the product

The issues don't end with the production of tech but extend to how it gets used. We like to think of the internet as a place where anything can be found (provided you have internet access), but the truth is quite different. From China's Great Firewall to internet censorship in places like Turkey, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt, much of the world's population accesses a censored internet

While much of the repression online is pushed by governments, some argue Silicon Valley companies are increasingly aiding them by complying with take-down requests.

So, on the one hand, the powers that be are trying to control what information we can access. On the other, they are trying to find out as much as possible about us. While there are ways to protect your privacy online, being private takes some effort and is hardly ever the rule. This is of particular concern when it comes to children, who without adequate digital awareness may expose themselves to risks.

UNICEF's recent State of the World's Children 2017 report argues that to protect children online a greater burden of responsibility needs to be placed on online service providers to set clear limits to their collection, processing and retention of children's data. 

Significantly, however, the authors of the report concede that until "tech companies start thinking about ethical design, users – especially children and young people – will continue to face the consequences of technologies designed for social media firms' financial incentives and not users' real needs".  

Does the goal justify the means?

When none of the tech companies have entirely clean hands, does that mean we shouldn't be using technology to aid and amplify our work? No. Turning our backs on tech would be foolish – we all know the variety of ways in which girls and boys around the world can benefit from being able to access the internet, or even use a simple mobile phone.

But we do need to be aware of the problems, and seek to address them when we can: demand due diligence from corporate partners, engage with companies for them to improve their human rights record, and educate children and adults on online risks and how to protect themselves. 


Jos nainen olisi käynyt kuussa


Tämä blogi julkaistiin alunperin Vihreät Naiset blogissa 11.2.2018.

Pienenä minulla oli kaksi tavoitetta elämässäni: olla ensimmäinen nainen kuussa ja voittaa kultamitali olympiakisoissa. Nuorta minua ei voi syyttää kunnianhimon puutteesta. Pikakelaus noin kolme vuosikymmentä eteenpäin, enkä ole saavuttanut kumpaakaan. Olympiakulta tuntuu nyt saavuttamattomalta, mutta ensimmäinen tavoitteeni on vielä teknisesti mahdollinen: yksikään nainen ei ole vieläkään käynyt kuussa. Itse asiassa vajaat 90 prosenttia kaikista avaruudessa käyneistä ovat olleet miehiä.

Viimeisimpien Pisa-tulosten perusteella suomalaiset tytöt pärjäävät luonnontieteissä poikia paremmin, he ovat jopa toiseksi parhaita maailmassa. Tulosten julkistuksen jälkeen Helsingin Uutiset otsikoi: “Tytöt jyräävät pojat nyt miehiselläkin alalla”. Kuitenkin samaiset Pisa-tulokset osoittavat, että suomalaiset tytöt eivät ole kiinnostuneita hakeutumaan miehisiksi mielletyille tekniikan ja luonnontieteiden aloille: vain runsas  viidennes Suomen teknologiayritysten työntekijöistä on naisia. Tämä on ongelma.

Osallistuin lokakuussa Women in Tech -tapahtumaan, jonka tavoitteena on edistää naisten osallistumista teknologiaan. Vaikka tapahtuma itsessään on tärkeä, minua jäi harmittamaaneräiden osallistujien vihjailu, jonka mukaan naiset ovat parempia kuin miehet ja naisten osuutta teknologiassa tulisi sen vuoksi lisätä. Mielestäni argumentointi ontuu: naiset eivät ole miehiä parempia sen enempää kuin miehetkään naisia parempia. Kyse ei ole ”paremmuudesta”. Kyse on siitä, että sukupuoli ei määritä osaamista ja erilaiset näkökulmat tuovat rikkautta.

”So what?” kysyi teinipoika minulta pari viikkoa sitten, kun vedin työpajaa aiheesta koulussa. Mitä väliä sillä on, ettei teknisillä aloilla ole yhtä paljon naisia kuin miehiä? Vastauksia on monia. Yksi liittyy tyttöjen – eli tulevien naisten – uramahdollisuuksiin teknillisellä alalla. Tutkimusten mukaan luutuneet sukupuolistereotypiat vaikuttavat edelleen kielteisesti tyttöjen luottamukseen omaan osaamiseensa esimerkiksi fysiikassa, kemiassa ja tietojenkäsittelyssä. Ennakkoluulot tyttöjen ja naisten osaamisesta teknillisillä aloilla vaikuttavat myös heidän urakehitykseen; esimerkiksi IT-alalla naiset ovat tyypillisesti alemmissa hallinto- ja toimistotehtävissä.

Sukupuolten epätasapaino heijastuu myös siihen, miten näemme ja koemme maailman, sekä mitä maailmasta tiedämme. Vuonna 2011 tehdyn kyselyn mukaan noin 90 prosenttia englanninkielisen Wikipedian toimittajista on miehiä. Wikipediassa on myös enemmän ja pitempiä artikkeleita miehistä ja tietokannassa olevissa naisten ja miesten elämänkerroissa on eroja: naisista kertovissa elämänkerroissa suuri osa sisällöstä liittyy kyseisen naisen perheeseen, sukupuoleen ja suhteisiin. Miehistä kertovissa elämäkerroissa myönteiset ilmaukset toistuvat useammin, kun taas kielteiset ilmaisut ovat tavallisempia naisista kertovissa elämänkerroissa. Koska Wikipedialla on yli 32 miljoonaa käyttäjää, sillä mitä siellä kerrotaan tai ei kerrota, on väliä.

Haluan uskoa, että vajaan vuoden ikäinen tyttäreni voi kasvaa juuri sellaiseksi, kuin hän itse haluaa. Tutkimukset kuitenkin osoittavat, että jo esikouluiässä hän on todennäköisesti omaksunut monta haitallista sukupuolistereotypiaa, mukaan lukien sen, että astronautit ovat miehiä. Meidän on tietoisesti purettava näitä stereotypioita, ja työskenneltävä sen eteen, että tytöt ja naiset pääsevät tasavertaisesti sekä käyttämään että kehittämään teknologiaa ja digitaalisia ratkaisuja sekä nyt, että tulevaisuudessa.