How Digital Literacy Can Support Women’s Safety, Health and Wellbeing

Written By: Isabel Bleim, Registered Clinical Counsellor

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is “DigitALL: innovation and technology for gender equality.” There is no question that technology plays a crucial part in our everyday lives. And there is no doubt that a digital divide exists between the haves and the have-nots.

The pandemic demonstrated the digital disparity in two significant sectors: healthcare and education. When doctors’ offices and teachers’ classrooms were moved online, a concerning amount of pregnant women, mothers with children of all ages, and daughters responsible for the care of elderly parents had either no access to or limited experience with the Internet.

While this technological disenfranchisement was most often seen in developing countries, those living in rural and remote areas of industrialized nations were also affected. Moreover, impoverished immigrant families living in urban areas were heavily impacted. The pandemic increased distress and disconnection, resulting in an increase in domestic violence. Unsurprisingly, mothers and children were most often the victims.

To be ‘on the grid’ greatly improves one’s chances of viably participating in society. My own mother, 81 years old, has continued to learn how to use the Internet to run her boutique travel services. In her words, “My learning keeps me laughing and my mind going!”

It is doubtful that marginalized mothers and their children experienced much laughter and learning. The lack of digital technology left them without the much-needed educational and social support required to adjust and then hopefully thrive in a new environment.

So when it comes to digital technology, society must narrow the digital divide. As the UN states, societies will greatly benefit if more women were recruited rather than excluded from STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math). However, they also note that women experience technology as a double-edged sword.

For example, a 2021 pilot study in Switzerland found that abused women with access to digital technology were better equipped to keep track of their abusers, obtain and collect evidence of their abuse, and seek support and stay in touch with family and friends. However, their accessibility to digital technology enabled their abusers to retain coercive control and equipped them with the capacity to perpetuate their harm. 

Another study found that perpetrators have nine strategies, often used in unison, that threaten women’s use of digital technology. These threats, and the prevalence rates for women who have experienced them, are as follows:

  • 67% reported Misinformation and Defamation:  false claims made to discredit or damage their character
  • 66% reported Cyber-Harassment: receiving texts or graphical content to frighten and undermine self-esteem
  • 65% reported Hate Speech: sexist or hateful language designed to attack or humiliate
  • 63% reported Impersonation: false online presence made under their name
  • 63% reported Hacking and Stalking: having online communications intercepted and being stalked through location tracking
  • 53% reported Video and Image-Based Abuse: seeing private images or videos shared online with malicious intent
  • 55% reported Doxing: seeing personal real-world information such as an address posted online
  • 52% reported Violent Threats: receiving threats of physical harm through online channels
  • 58% reported Astroturfing: seeing damaging content across different social media platforms

So how can we counter the digital technology threats against women? By supporting women to have a stronger, more resilient presence in both the virtual and natural world. But how do we do that?

According to Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, the answer is by amplifying. We embolden and fortify women when we loudly, proudly, and frequently broadcast women’s efforts via the social media platforms we use. We celebrate a woman’s success by placing the spotlight on them. These women can be a member of your family, a friend, or a stranger you’ve never met. 

When we see a woman being ridiculed online or being interrupted or demeaned in a meeting, we need to shout OFFSIDE! We don’t stay silent. A study at Brigham Young University found that when a woman witnesses another woman being humiliated but remains silent, the target of the humiliation experienced deeper pain and self-recrimination. 

The presence of the woman bystander evokes the primordial fear of being banished and thrown out of the pack to face an unpredictably harsh environment where survival depends on the protection of others. This fear is what often leads women to remain silent, lest they suffer the literal experience of no one having their back.

Having someone’s back involves being both their cheerleader and their protector. A cheerleader inspires a ‘believe and achieve’ attitude which is necessary to begin any endeavour. A protector inspires the motivation to keep moving and keep forging ahead when the foray seems too frightening. A protector also helps a woman pivot to a new pursuit if preserving has become pointless or even harmful.

So in celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, ask yourself how willing am I to use technology to help other women pinpoint and pursue their goals. How often will I participate in the amplification of other women’s success, be they family, friends, or strangers I’ve never even met?

How courageous will I be to amplify social justice reforms for women, and for all? Then ask yourself, who are the people in my life who have been my cheerleaders and protectors? Once they’ve been identified, reach out to them, thank them, and forever hold them close.

If you feel isolated or would like support as a woman, please reach out to a therapist at Brentwood Counselling Centre. We’re here to help.

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