March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day consistently celebrated for almost 50 years. This year’s theme, according to the United Nations, is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” We live in a digitally connected world, and yet more than a third of all women in the world do not use the internet. Not having access to the internet leads to women not having access to potentially lifesaving health care information, even educational opportunities and access to banking services.
Women lag behind men in STEM careers, whether that’s globally, nationally or in Utah. At 21%, women in Utah STEM careers are some six percentage points behind the national average of 27%. There are multiple reasons behind that lag, including the belief that “girls can’t do math” that begins somewhere around third grade, or age eight. Girls begin self-selecting out of STEM fields and can end up choosing traditionally “gendered” careers.
Jamie Dalton, currently the chief of staff for Cloud Operations at Adobe, had a path like that. She began her college career in elementary education, because it felt like the “right” kind of career. What she really wanted to do, however, was information technology. She eventually changed majors and graduated in IT. She began working in “pro-active fraud protection,” has done software engineering, then policy development for fraud, moved into business development and now works at Adobe. Her own nieces are falling into the trap of “I’m not good at math,” even though they are getting straight A’s in math.
When conversations turn to how to hire more women in tech, Dalton says there are simply not enough women in the pipeline. The opportunities are there, but the workers are not. Women, she says, are every bit as capable as men in STEM careers. It’s not only the lack of women in STEM careers, however. When girls and women do have access to the internet, there are very real threats to their safety and well-being.
Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN-Women, spoke this week at the Commission on the Status of Women. “A new kind of poverty now confronts the world, one that excludes women and girls in devastating ways — that of digital poverty.” She continued, “The digital divide has become the new face of gender inequality, which is being compounded by the pushback against women and girls that we see in the world today.”
Some of those threats come from external sources, with people or groups targeting women online. Female politicians, for example, are more than three times as likely to face threats of violence than their male colleagues, according to a Forbes article in fall 2022. It starts at the local level and goes up through the highest levels of government around the world.
The International Center for Journalists conducted an in-depth study of the increasing online violence against female journalists worldwide and found that nearly three-quarters of female journalists have experienced online attacks. Those threats are not just to the journalists, either. Like political figures, online threats often target the recipient’s family members, including their children. Fully 20% said that the online attacks had lead to offline attacks or abuse. Those online attacks have real-life impacts, and are amplified when racism, religious bigotry and other forms of discrimination are also present. Social media platforms and news organizations have not been able to respond effectively when incidences are reported and some even gaslight their employees. The top three responses from news organizations when online threats and violence were reported were No. 1: no response at all, No. 2: “grow a thicker skin” and No. 3: ask the employee what they did to provoke the attack.
Some of the online threats to women and girls come from the pervasive negative effects of social media. An article in The Atlantic details the sharp decline in teen mental health, especially our nation’s young women. In 2011, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 36% of teenage girls experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Ten years later, in 2021, the rate was 57%. The Utah Legislature just passed two bills to try to curb the negative effects of social media on Utah’s youth. Laws protecting against cyberbullying already exist, but laws alone won’t be enough to stop online threats, whether self-directed or externally directed.
Girls and women need access to the internet. Threats need to be taken seriously, but the solution is not to get off the internet. It has become an essential tool. It can literally be life-saving, for moms and their families. It is needed in almost every job in today’s world, from nursing to engineer, from teacher to rocket scientist. And to all little girls who are starting to wonder: yes, you CAN do math. Happy International Women’s Day!
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.