Digital technologies have been playing a key role in the fight against Covid-19. They are helping us in many different ways: collecting and analysing data, monitoring the spread of the virus (tracing apps), staying connected, safely accessing public services (eGovernment), providing healthcare (eHealth), supporting research to develop vaccines and treatments, protecting and keeping us safe, contributing to online learning, etc.
The coronavirus is thus having a revolutionary and accelerator role in advancing digital technologies. However, are these technologies following a human-centric approach and providing a gender-sensitive response to the virus? Do women, men, girls and boys have equal access to these technologies?
Despite having boosted the development and uptake of digital technologies, along may come unintended side effects that disproportionately impact women/girls and men/boys.
The discussion around gender-blind and gender-biased data and artificial intelligence (AI) is not new. Algorithms may reflect biases of their developers which may result in discrimination and inequalities with real implications on women’s and men’s lives (e.g. misdiagnosis, access to a job, proliferation of hate speech). Sex-disaggregated data are essential for making informed and evidence-based decisions. Data referring to individuals in general will contribute to policies that widen the existing gender gaps and inequalities and do not address the real needs of women/girls and men/boys.
The digital gender divide is a reality: access to technology and internet is largely unbalanced among women and men, as well as their digital skills. This may have an impact on their access to education or increased their vulnerability to (cyber)violence.
As a reflection and action point, it is important that digital technologies are developed following a human-centric and gender-sensitive approach that consider the different needs of women, men, girls and boys. The European Commission welcomes and supports a human-centric approach to artificial intelligence that duly considers fundamental rights (including non-discrimination and gender equality). Fostering a European coordinated approach and building alliances at international level around human and ethical aspects of AI have been identified as key actions set out in the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence. The Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men has issued this year an opinion on AI and the opportunities and challenges for gender equality.
The European Commission and the EU Member States need to address the digital gender gap (through the Digital Education Plan and Skills Agenda that will be soon updated) and encourage gender-sensitive and gender-specific data collection and analysis (as highlighted in the Gender Equality Strategy) so that they can better respond to the current crisis. Some reflections on how the covid-19 crisis will affect existing gender divides in Europe have been recently shared by the Joint Research Centre.
Digital technologies are key in our daily lives as well as to respond to crisis like the one we are living today. Let’s just make sure we develop them in a responsible way and respecting fundamental rights.