Why the Web Isn’t Working for Women and Girls

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee says we must all address this dangerous trend

Tim Berners-Lee


Illustration: Simone Noronha

WWhen the world celebrated the web’s 30th birthday a year ago, we were reminded of the incredible things it has enabled — and all that we stand to lose if we don’t fight for it. I asked everyone to join together and do what they can to make sure the next 30 years of the web is even greater than the last.

A year later, with the help of activists, academics, policymakers, and business people across the world, the Web Foundation has built and published a Contract for the Web — endorsed by companies, institutions, and thousands of organizations and individuals — designed to protect and shape a web that is safe, empowering, and available to all.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we cannot achieve the aims of this Contract unless we address a dangerous trend we are hearing more and more about from our partners globally and working on the frontline: The web is not working for women and girls.

The world has made important progress on gender equality thanks to the unceasing drive of committed champions everywhere. But I am seriously concerned that online harms facing women and girls — especially those of color, from LGBTQ+ communities and other marginalized groups — threaten that progress.

This should concern us all. Women’s rights are human rights and are fundamental to a healthy society, from reducing poverty and disease to improving education and economic growth.

And so it’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone. That requires the attention of all those who shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials. That’s why I’m adding my voice alongside thousands of others calling for action.

There are three key areas that are particularly worrying.

First, a majority of the world’s women are still not connected to the internet, largely because they can’t afford it or have no access to the technology they need or the skills to use it. Men remain 21% more likely to be online than women, rising to 52% in the world’s least developed countries. This gap reinforces existing inequalities and prevents millions from using the web to learn, earn, and make their voice heard.

Second, for many who are online, the web is simply not safe enough. New research by the Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts found over half of young women surveyed have experienced violence online — including being sexually harassed, sent threatening messages, or having their private images shared without consent. Eighty-four percent think the problem is getting worse.

Such abuse forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school. It damages relationships and leads to tremendous distress. Relentless harassment silences women and deprives the world of their opinions and ideas, with female journalists and politicians pushed off social media and bullied out of office.

And it risks the tremendous opportunities that digital technology offers. A young woman from a technology skills center I visited in Nigeria runs a catering business on social media. The same platform that allows her to reach customers also exposes her to daily bombardment of sexual harassment from strangers.

Third, other forms of online discrimination against women remain hidden. Artificial intelligence systems are increasingly used to judge our abilities and define our opportunities. If properly designed, they could make the world fairer. But too often, algorithms reproduce and even deepen existing inequalities. In 2018, a major automated recruitment tool had to be scrapped because it systematically under-selected women due to being trained on historical data where roles were filled by men.

Many companies are working hard to tackle this discrimination. But unless they dedicate resources and diversify teams to mitigate bias, they risk expanding discrimination at a speed and scale never seen before.

Despite the growing crisis of gender inequality online, action by governments and companies has been too slow and too small.

The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates just how urgently we need action. When offices and schools close, the web is a lifeline that allows us to keep working, educating our children, and reading information vital to keeping us safe and healthy. A world where so many women and girls are deprived of these basics is completely unacceptable. When we need it more than ever, the web has to work for everyone.

2020 is a year of opportunity for change. This year marks 25 years since 189 countries agreed on an ambitious global plan to empower women, and we’re just 10 years from the global deadline to reach gender equality. The issue will have the attention of global decision-makers, including those at three major meetings hosted by the UN that will bring companies, governments, and civil society together to set out actions they will take to empower women. Making the web work for women, girls, and other marginalized groups — and therefore for all of us — must be at the heart of those commitments.

Tackling online gender inequality will be a core priority for the Web Foundation through 2020 and beyond. We’ll continue to research online harms and policy gaps, to work to close the gender digital divide, and to advocate for policies that empower women. We’ll do this alongside partners in our Women’s Rights Online network, such as IT for Change in India, the Women of Uganda Network, and Sulá Batsú in Costa Rica.

We’ll also forge new partnerships to campaign against online abuse and work with companies, governments, and civil society on innovative policy and product design. And we’ll work with those who have backed the Contract for the Web to ensure they make good on their commitments to make the internet available, empowering, and safe for everyone — particularly women and other systematically excluded groups.

In 2020, we must channel the ambitious, collaborative spirit behind the Contract for the Web to tackle the digital gender divide and online harms against women and girls:

  • Prioritize the problem: 2020 must be the year governments and companies tackle online harms against women as a top priority.
  • Provide better data: Companies and governments must tackle the data void around online violence by systematically recording and publishing data on what women experience online.
  • Embed ‘gender equality by design’: Governments and companies must create all products, policies, and services based on data and feedback from women of all backgrounds.
  • Build legal protections: Governments must develop laws that hold perpetrators of online gender-based violence to account, and resource law enforcement to respond and prosecute when those laws are violated.
  • Be active bystanders: We must all speak up when we see harms against women and girls online.

The call for action is compelling and urgent. By answering it together, we can create a stronger, better web; one that empowers, fosters equality, and serves each and every one of us.



Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor of WWW | Co-founder/CTO Inrupt.com | Lead, Solidproject.org | Co-founder WebFoundation.org theODI.org | Founder W3C.org | Emeritus Prof CS MIT & Oxford