Sexism in the digital world: "bugs" in our conception of reality
26 May 2021
The proportion of women in the digital economy has been steadily declining for the past 10 years. Are women bad at IT, or is the digitalization of the world mirroring the inequalities of the real world?
It is well known that women and computers don't mix! Ironically, the first computer bug was discovered by a woman. While working on programming the Harvard Mark II (the distant ancestor of our computers), Grace Hopper discovered a computer crash caused by... a bug! The expression became much more famous than her. It also became much more famous than Margaret Hamilton, without whom Apollo 11 could never have landed on the Moon.
Women are increasingly absent from the digital world
Have you noticed that when computing was considered a menial activity, women were widely represented, whereas since IT has become a leading sector, women are becoming increasingly rare? It's a fact: the Gender Scan study presented in 2019 by Cédric O, Secretary of State in charge of the Digital Sector, revealed overwhelming figures. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of female graduates in the IT sector jumped by 23% in Europe while it fell by 2% in France. This decrease is partly explained by the dizzying drop in the proportion of women in IT courses.
We are making the mistake of digitalizing the inequalities already present in our society.
For several years now, the IT world has been experiencing exponential growth - a trend which has accelerated in recent months, with the massive use of working from home and remote teaching. We are shaping a digital world, and in this world, women have no place. We are making the mistake of digitalizing the inequalities already present in our society.
Gender stereotypes still alive and well
How did we get here? First of all with gender stereotypes, i.e. baseless depictions of the differences between men and women. From childhood, little girls are taught that they are intrinsically incapable of doing science - an unfounded belief that has heavy repercussions on their behavior.
Here is an example. In a study conducted by Pascal Huguet and his colleagues (2007), children in grades 6 and 7 had to reproduce a complex geometric figure from memory. For half of the children, the instructions stressed that the test assessed their geometry skills, while for the other half, the instructions stated that the test assessed their drawing skills. The results showed that when it came to geometry, the girls were far inferior to the boys, while when it came to drawing, the opposite was true.
These stereotypes feed into myths about the superiority of boys and inferiority of girls in science, to which women are widely exposed in the digital world. It is for this reason that while digital technology is exploding worldwide, women are increasingly under-represented in France (20% in 2009 compared to 17% in 2018). With equal skills, it is still more complicated for a woman to succeed in the digital world, which is paradoxical in view of the fundamental role that women have played in the development of IT.
Women's lack of security in the digital world
The worst part of all this is that digital sexism does not only affect women working in this field. Not satisfied with merely making women feel unsafe in the real world, our society is doing its best to make them understand that they are not safe in the digital world either.
The digital world is diluting individual responsibility, which raises the concern that sexist behaviors already prevalent in the real world will be exacerbated.
This is what a study carried out in England in 2020 has revealed. According to this study, 30% of the women surveyed had encountered at least one sexist request since working from home became widespread. These women were asked by their superiors to "wear more make-up", "do their hair better" or dress "sexier" to please their teams or customers.
Just like being in a crowd, the digital world is diluting individual responsibility, which raises the concern that sexist behaviors already widespread in the real world will not only be transposed into the digital one but also exacerbated. The study also reveals that few women have reported these behaviors because, unfortunately, in this area women still receive little support.
Creating a responsible digital environment
However, we are not here to pass judgement on the morality of digital technology, so much as to warn of the possible digitization of our society's excesses and inequalities. For example, some companies have recently launched a range of virtual make-up for videoconferencing. Some will see this as a nice evolution of some filters already available elsewhere (such as on Instagram), while others will see it as a way to digitalize a demand made on women's appearance. The cause for concern lies not so much in the tool itself as in the ways it can be misused.
Let's build a responsible digital environment which is respectful of humanity and the environment, but is also inclusive.
What should we take away from all this? That digital technology must be designed so that it does not breed the dematerialization of social inequalities. Let's build a "responsible digital environment", that is to say a digital environment which is respectful of humanity and the environment, but is also inclusive, in which everyone is free to flourish. Let’s polish our minds through contact with others, rather than corroding our ideals with rancid stereotypes. It is out of the question to deprive ourselves of 50% of the genius of our species! Without this extra bit of soul it is quite possible that we will end up like a bug crushed between the circuits of a computer.