Including gender in privacy and digital security

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The Gender and Technology Institute enabled the creation of a conversation coming from experiences located in 30 different countries about how we could develop practices that enable women, trans* persons and other groups at risk to include privacy and digital security into their lives, and how we could keep on learning while helping others to learn about those concepts, methods and tools once back home. Recurrently, our reduced amount of free time, fragmented and precarious lives and lack of individual and collective self-care cultures were pointed at as major challenges to become trainers on the ground. How can we include and pack those fast evolving privacy and digital security practices into our already very busy lives as human rights defenders and activists? How can we find collective mechanisms of support to keep advancing together and empower each other?

In the following, the focus will be on the three steps that allow to include gender in privacy and digital security practices. The steps include first, the relationship between gender roles and violence against women and technology, second, the reframing from exclusion and discrimination to inclusion and self-inclusion and finally, the intersectional and integrated (holistic) approach to understand gender, privacy and digital security.

First step: Acknowledge gender roles and Violence Against Women along the technological cycle

The following ideas are based on the exchanges maintained during and after the Gender and Technology Institute, and on the great amount of past and current on-going research, experiences, initiatives and policies that are being developed to overcome specific challenges posed by the interactions between gender and technology. Peer-to-peer and group learning processes are derivative of the experience gained by participants through the organization of around 50 local activities targeting women and trans* persons in order to raise their awareness and lift up their practices for integrating privacy and digital security in their work though a gender perspective. In a nutshell, we could say that including gender into privacy and security requires to engage with the diversity of cultures, social status, gender identification, sexual orientations, race, ethnicities and other power structures that create various forms and levels of inequality for individuals and communities into their access to security tools and practices. Enabling enthusiasm for privacy and digital security practices requires an integrated approach linking those to our well-being and physical security as human right defenders and feminist and queer activists. By exposing the many invisible contributions that sustain digital security communities, avoiding frustrated expectations, gaining self confidence and losing fear through do-it-with-others processes, gender and cultural diversity in those fields can be included. Accordingly, adapted, updated and targeted resources and training methodologies focusing on specific threats and strengths is required in order to activate curiosity and better understanding through contextual references.

Gender roles are sets of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived biological sex. These are usually centered around opposing conceptions of femininity and masculinity, although there are myriad exceptions and variations.2 Therefore the first step for including gender consists in acknowledging the gender roles that society attribute to us at birth and during the rest of our lives and that generate stereotypes that can become prejudices. The latter generally results into specific threats and violences against women, queer or non-binary persons along the complete technological cycle. Looking at these threats and exclusion from an intersectional point of view, we can furthermore see that they are often aggravated by other forms of social exclusion such as socio-economic status, place of residence and / or socio-demographic factors such as age, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

The production of technologies

As Wilding and Fernandez stated in 2002, “We need much more research on the specific impact of ICT on different populations of women whose lives are being profoundly altered by the new technologies, often in ways that lead to extreme physical and mental health problems.”3

Electronics and telecommunication industries are highly dependent on low-wage workers and often operate in special economic zones known for their anti-union measures. In Malaysia, between 70 and 80% of the workforce in this branch are women who are also often immigrants. In Mexico, women are reported to be 70% of the workforce and often face sexual harassment from their direct superiors and are forced to work overtime among other systemic violences. Currently, there is a lack of networks and initiatives that can challenge those conditions and reclaim technologies produced and recycled in fair working and environmental conditions. Including gender requires to take into account this context, as it clearly constitutes a set of structural violences against women.

Access to technologies

The gender gap in relation to access to technologies can be spotted when asking women about their first memory of a technology and how much life distance they traveled until they became active users of Information and Communication Technologies. This amount of years between our first memory and when we started to actively use ICT represents our gender time gap in relation to access to technologies. Moreover, the digital divide is still largely happening between urban and rural areas and it is also strongly gendered as current data estimates that there are 200 million fewer women connected to the internet than men. This lack of access can be caused by a deficient connectivity or inexistent infrastructure or by a lack of inclusiveness and usability in the design of technologies, and it can be also aggravated by discrimination pushing away or forbidding women to access ICT, denying their basic rights to communication, information and knowledge. In this last sense, including gender also requires to understand how different women in different conditions find ways of accessing technologies, even if they are not supposed to or supported in doing so, and how they can protect themselves and others in the process.

Uptake of technologies

When finally uptaking with ICT, we may face violence online because of our gender and/or sexual orientation. As explained by Jeniffer Radloff from the APC women programme: “What is now increasingly obvious is that the Internet and digital tools and spaces have a profound impact on the magnitude of threats and have simultaneously broadened and increased the kinds of surveillance and harassment to which human rights defenders, both men and women, are being subjected. Attacks against women are invariably sexualised and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are often more at risk online (as they are offline) than their male counterparts. Invariably WHRDs can experience more hostility, and at the same time lower levels of protection, compared to their male colleagues”.4 The problem of online harassment and threats against women and their collaborators, coming from both governments and non-state individuals and groups, has become more visible in the last few years. The internet is not a safe space, and it is all too common to see the work of women and activists being blocked, deleted, (self)censored, and in general, actively prevented from being seen, heard or read. Logically, these trends diminish both the freedom of expression and privacy rights of the people targeted. Including gender requires also to tackle specific gender-based online violence and to build capacity on the ground so that women and minorities can protect and strengthen their freedom of opinion and expression.

Development of technologies

In a 1991 essay, Ellen Spertus examined the influences that discourage women from pursuing a career in a technical field, more specifically in computer sciences. These influential factors range from the different ways in which boys and girls are educated, the stereotypes and subtle biases female engineers face working in predominantly male environments, sexism in language and subconscious behavior that tends to perpetuate the status quo. The lower levels of women in Computer sciences and STEM studies and in related professions within the ICT industry have been intensively studied. There is considerably less literature on the participation of women in “free software” communities and hacking cultures, or on the introduction of women into software and technologies development thanks to informal learning processes in voluntary and/or activists contexts. Besides that, the documentation of women contribution through history to the design and development of technologies is still very scare, anecdotal and often derivative of a negation and invisibility of women roles in those specific histories. This drives in turn to a lack of role models and the impossibility of launching new imaginaries and overcome current stereotypes. Including gender also consists in researching the herstory and making women, trans and queer experiences in the management and development of technologies visible, be those digital ones, or appropriated technologies such as permaculture or health and self-care technologies for instance.

Governance of Internet and ICT

We also must claim the power of the internet to amplify alternative and diverse narratives of women’s lived realities'. For this reason the feminist principles of the internet cannot turn into an ideology but need to be an open evolving platform. A space of agitation and construction of political practices so that the internet facilitates new forms of citizenship that enable individuals to claim, construct, and express their selves, genders, sexualities. And it is precisely for this reason that we should not confine ourselves to the use of internet as a tool but must understand, monitor and engage with those who govern the internet. Now its governance is a very complex universe, a decentralized and international multistakeholder network of interconnected autonomous groups drawing from civil society, the private sector, governments, the academic and research communities and national and international organizations. Besides, it is also important to influence policies within the social media platforms we are actively using to present ourselves online, coordinate and network with our different social networks composed by our families, colleagues, activists friends. Because of this, including gender means also enabling a greater participation of women, trans* and queer into institutions contributing to the governance of Internet inasmuch as inside companies delivering services for supporting our networking and online identity.

The end of life of technologies

Finally, we should not forget about the e-waste dump routes that consist on those areas where electronic waste is shipped, often contradicting the principles settled by the Basel Convention6, and that conclude in their abandonment in developing countries where local communities have to take in charge their recycling, generally under very poor ecological, social and working conditions. Those places represent the end of life of technologies and another problematic aspect of consumerist and fetishistic approaches to ICT.

Second step: From exclusion and discrimination to inclusion and self inclusion processes

This review of the steps composing the technological cycle shows that including gender into privacy and digital security requires first to acknowledge that gender gaps, discrimination and VAW are happening along the process in a structural way and that they influence the conditions of women, trans* persons and at risk minorities in relation to their experience of/with ICT. It also shows that when we use technologies, we should reflect about how those are liberating or alienating for other groups and individuals. Liberating technologies can be defined as appropriated technologies that do not harm, are rooted in the free software and culture principles and are designed by default against gender based violence, surveillance, opacity and programmed obsolescence, and this is one of the first things we should consider when switching from fighting exclusion to focusing on inclusion.

Moving towards inclusion

To stop exclusion is not the same thing as achieving inclusion. Focusing on exclusion might lead us to believe that inclusion is impossible, when there are actually women who include themselves in ICT and digital inclusion actions and policies that have been effective. There is a need to shift the question from why women or trans* persons do not access, use, study or work in ICT to the question of why, where and how we have become involved in ICT and have been welcomed to it. This becomes more consistent with feminisms that consider the experiences of women and trans* persones at the heart and point of departure of our reflections and have brought to light the contributions, uses and desires we make of ICT. With this, role models for many more could be put in the spotlight, as well stereotypes about gender and ICT could be weakened.

The need for women and trans* persons' inclusion in ICT is a question of gender justice and equality. However, there are many other arguments that support an improved inclusion in ICT. Increasing our representation in ICT also increases the pool of skilled IT workers, and privacy and digital security developers and trainers. Moreover, this means to work in sectors with higher pay and prestige and at the cutting edge of current changes. Including women and trans* persons in ICT would also increase the diversity of participant profiles in developing ICT and the information society in general. This would include the voices, perspectives and needs of thousands of potential users, as well as increasing the opportunities for creating new technological products that are more extensive and adaptable to many different profiles while, at the same time, facilitating the development and transformation of the ICT sector itself and society as a whole.

Self-inclusion mechanisms

When referring to self-inclusion of women and trans* persons in ICT we position ourselves as agents conducting our own ICT inclusion and focus on the mechanisms that we activate and/or decide to follow to contribute to and transform ICT. The main self-inclusion mechanism commonly stated consists of learning. However, many women do not learn in formal education nor study engineering, but engage in non-formal, informal learning processes and often volunteer activities. In addition, as in many other sectors, women and trans* persons seek and access ICT jobs and activism to self-include themselves in ICT. However, due to gender stereotypes we find it difficult to engage in self-promotion or in making visible our contributions. When finding barriers in a given context or seeking new opportunities most of the women and trans* persons have opted for mobility, both occupational and geographic. Many of us become entrepreneurs or tech related activists to carry out our ideas and projects, alone or with other partners, to maintain and continue our ICT practices, as well as set several self-regulating practices as another mechanism of self-inclusion, such as establishing certain plans and organizations to follow. Women and trans* persons also build new networks. In relation to that, we have been collaborating and sharing knowledge but also works, codes and resources that could help and be used by others. Through collective participation we learn, interact or even generate new projects as well as new forms of inclusion. In ocassions we create new groups or events that could foster gender and technology at the same time.

Inclusion factors

Previous experiences related to gender inclusion have identified a number of auspicious factors facilitating the entrance and immersion of women and minorized groups in technology.In a nutshell main recommendations for the inclusion of more women into technology and therefore privacy and digital security fields are:

  • Facilitate women and trans* persons' access to ICT. For example: encourage your daughter or student, create pedagogical materials on gender and ICT, share your mouse and tools with her, and collaborate with collectives that work on equality.
  • Make visible, create awareness and recognise women and trans* persons' contributions. For example: Pay attention and visualize their past and present experiences and achievements. Give credit and promote their contributions and their gender diversity.
  • Create gender friendly environments. For example: implement a welcome policy, encourage work-life balance measures, avoid sexist jokes and fight against any type of harassment and violence.
  • Mentor and sponsor: For example: Offer yourself as a mentor and share your collective/company knowledge with her. If an interesting new role is vacant, point to her as a candidate.
  • Practice Feminims, Let us be and transform: Do not expect what has been traditionally there. Be open to non linear trajectories, to new uses of old tools, other and new ways of doing and even other ways of living femininities and masculinities.

Third step: Adopt an intersectional and integrated (holistic) approach

Moreover, our own learning processes and exchanges have also brought deep insights about what stands at the core of a methodological approach for gender inclusion into privacy and digital security making us aware of the importance of adopting an intersectional and feminist approach to technologies, inasmuch as an integrated (holistic) approach to security.


Intersectionality refers to a corpus of theories and practices that state that oppression within society, such as sexism, racism, biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another. These forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.7 Intersectionality goes hand by hand with a gender lens because both require to understand ones privileges in any of the different dimensions of our social lives. The women composing this network have indeed many identities that can relate to their ethnic background, age, geographical location, economical situation, political and inner beliefs, sexual orientation, professional status, mobility capacities and a long list of other elements. Accordingly when assessing the risks they are exposed to and the strengths they have, which constitute the basis of any travel journey towards privacy and digital security, they are required to take into account all those dimensions.

Integrated security perspective

Additionally, the integrated (holistic) security perspective seeks to overcome the unhelpful separation between approaches which focus on digital security, personal/organizational security, and psycho-social well-being. This involves recognizing the effect of stress, fatigue and trauma on activists abilities to engage with 'rational' processes of risk analysis, security planning and skill building in digital security; furthermore, it recognises the impact of new technologies on our ability to accurately perceive indicators of danger and take action to stay safe. Many participants felt that an integrated approach to security made more sense with many of the groups that were trained on the ground such as indigenous groups, women in rural and poor areas, LGTBQ, sex and health activists, anti mining and environmental activists, journalists and community champions. An integrated approach enables participants to think about how threats related to each others and which security practices help them to transform their loneliness and individual fears into collective strategies to overcome dangers and creating protection among the members of a connected network.

This manual is divided in two core parts. First, it will explore the questions of and practices surrounding the management of online identities. When wanting to improve ones digital security and privacy practices, it is crucial to understand the threats and challenges we face and are exposed to when living online and the ways in which to protect oneself accordingly. Second, the focus will go over the concept of safe spaces, its importance both online and offline and the ways in which a group or a community can build safe spaces to bring about empowerment, enable resistance when necessary, care for oneself and others, and fostering our community.