Have you heard about the young lawyer in Mexico who doesn’t go online much because she’s worried her boyfriend will disapprove? The medical professional in India who manipulates her video searches before logging off, so her family members won’t judge her choice of content? What about the Brazilian blogger who thinks about going offline because every time she posts, she’s bombarded with sexual comments?
Because of our geographic distance and cultural differences, it seems Indonesian women have nothing in common with those women. But there’s one thing that’s the same: One way or another, we all have experienced the unique challenges and risks that women face online.
Now more than ever, the internet provides access to everything, from news to services. But the uncomfortable truth is the internet in 2020 is still not gender-equitable.
There are more men than women online in two-thirds of the world’s countries – and in many cases it’s not a matter of choice. Google’s Toward Gender Equity Online report – conducted in Indonesia and six other fast-growing economies – found multiple, overlapping barriers preventing women from sharing fully in the benefits of internet.
The harsh reality is many women in Indonesia and beyond still can’t access the internet on their own terms. They face pressure not to go online or have limits placed on their time, finances and movement.
In extreme cases, some women are barred from going online at all. Many women struggle to find relevant content online, with algorithms recommending videos, articles and blogs that skew toward male tastes and interests. There are fewer women role models and female-focused online communities, because women are reluctant to create social media content or share personal information online. Even in their own physical space, women face restrictions on their freedoms online, often needing to delete their search history or use app locks to protect their privacy on shared devices.
Above all, women on the internet fear for their safety, with risks ranging from cyber-stalking to impersonation (like synthetic porn or fake profiles), and the theft and unwanted sharing of photos and data.
Changing this matters both ethically and economically. According to McKinsey, closing gender gaps in Asia-Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to collective regional gross domestic products by 2025 – 12 per cent more than the business as usual. In our digital world, it will only be possible if we make sure that women across the region can use the internet freely and safely.
Governments, businesses and communities all have a role in clearing away the obstacles to women’s progress online – starting with three clear, tangible priorities.
First, those of us in the technology industry need to get better at incorporating women’s concerns into the way we build our services and apps. Features like incognito mode in Google Go are vital to safeguarding women’s privacy on shared devices, enabling them to access vital information on health, safety, sexuality and even fashion and beauty. Meanwhile, the safety mode on Google Maps can provide an important layer of protection for women using ride-hailing services.
Second, businesses, governments, non-profits and educators have a responsibility to work together to give women the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the internet confidently. It means partnership-based, grassroots education programmes, ranging from computer science classes for girls in school to basic digital literacy for new women internet users and advanced AI skills for women developers.
Google’s Women Will programme – which has trained 450,000 women-led small businesses – is one example of how we can meet that demand, Women Techmakers, a ‘train the trainer’ programme for women developers, is another. We will need many more in future.
Third, all of us as a society have to do more to support and celebrate women’s success and women role models online. From entrepreneurs like Sherly Santa in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara who grew her durian business online, to renowned disabled developers like Hastu Wijayasri and creators like Najwa Shihab, an inspiring journalist and one of YouTube’s Creators for Change ambassador, it’s critical that we lift up women who have used the internet to succeed and can now show a path for others.
As we do so, we must step up our efforts to make social media platforms safe places where women can create, learn, and find community – and weed out biases that favour male content and preferences.
Building a gender-equitable internet is vital for progress everywhere. But it’s especially important in countries like Indonesia where large numbers of people are only just beginning to come online – countries that will account for the majority of the next billion users of the internet and shape the future of the digital economy.
If anything, closing the gender gap online is even more important in a world grappling with the novel coronavirus. With work and travel restrictions making us more reliant on technology, there is a risk of even greater limitations of women’s freedoms on the internet. At the same time, as countries look toward economic recovery over the long-term, there is no more powerful driver of growth and opportunity than empowered women workers and business owners.
No matter what broader challenges we face, we will be better able to confront them if we advance equality online. An online environment where women are safe, supported and free to reach their potential won’t just mean a better internet; it will reflect a better world with a stronger future. The 2020s should be the decade we make that world a reality.
Putri Alam is Google Indonesia’s head of public policy and government relations.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK