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Gender must be central to the data protection conversation, not a side note

Web Foundation · February 9, 2018

This post was written by Ana Brandusescu, Web Foundation Research & Policy Officer. Follow her on Twitter at @anabmap.


Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels. Discussions at the conference covered a wide range of important digital issues — from cybersecurity and metadata protections, to e-privacy legislation and the impending enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Notably absent from these conversations, however, was a theme critical to each of these issues: gender.

Though the link between these topics and gender might not appear obvious at first glance, gender plays a significant role in the design and implementation of technology, online privacy, and data protection. In turn, how technology is deployed, how online privacy is protected, and how data is collected and used all impact women differently than men.

Again, I wonder, how can we ensure that gender is integrated in all areas that we work in, across research and policymaking?

Gender needs to be a part of the privacy and data protection discourse, not a side note.

The session I spoke in, Gendered Data Bodies, was the only session to make a direct link between data and gender. We discussed a range of interesting issues at the intersection of data and gender — from menstrual-tracker apps and the data privacy implications of their use for women, to the ability of women to privately access information about sexual and reproductive health online. However, these important conversations need to be incorporated in every field, not siloed to a single gender-focused panel. To build an inclusive digital world, the intersection of gender and data must be pursued across AI, algorithms, blockchain, privacy and data protection.

Gender has many nuances, for many different groups.

There are divides between women who do work on gender, and women who work in tech fields who never mention the word gender. To have these two groups at the opposite side of the same spectrum may not always be constructive, particularly if one group is just talking about gender, while the other one is negating it all together. We must work to bring these groups together, and incorporate women and a gendered perspective to conversations across the spectrum. Moreover, we must work to include a wide range of women’s voices and perspectives in these efforts — an all-white female panel doesn’t support intersectionality in gender (cough cough, WEF).

The non-usual suspects need a place and a voice at the table.

Data politics are not neutral. Not on a technological level, nor on a socio-economic or socio-cultural level. Everything from data collection, design of data-driven instruments, and data interpretation must once and for all acknowledge the gendered dynamics at play. We need to go beyond women groups and women spaces, or we will end up siloing ourselves. To make this shift, government officials working in policy of all kinds (not just on gender issues) need to partake in these discussions and offer their expertise. ‘Buy-in’ and support from the top at various institutions (global, national, regional or local) is also key. Only by widening these conversations — and ensuring women are included in the process — can we create gender-responsive privacy and data protection legislation.


At the Web Foundation, we actively work to deliver gender-responsive policy solutions to leaders and to amplify women’s voices across ICT policymaking processes around the world. I hope you’ll join us in bringing a gendered perspective to discussions across the ICT space, and to consider the way gendered data bodies influence the power dynamics at work in both our online and offline worlds.

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