Official UN Women's CSW67 Commission on the status of women banner, with words of 'Innovation and technological change education in the digital age' and 'Progress towards gender equality'.

#CrackingTheCode – Serving or Surveilling Women – Part 2

TW // Sexual Violence / Sexual Exploitation / Violence against a minor / online abuse

Firstly, can I start off this Part 2 by saying that being a UN Women’s Delegate has been a mix of emotions. What an absolute whirlwind of 2-3 weeks it was! I feel like I’ve been in a tornado, swept off my feet, inwardly screaming as I see a cow flying past me mooing in confusion and then being spat out on the floor with cartoon dizzy eyes. I have never been a UN Women’s Delegate before, and I hate to admit it but I have only really known a little bit about the United Nations, I hadn’t even realised UN Women was a thing until I saw that advert on Instagram. I applied on a whim.

Tell a lie, I went to apply, chickened out, closed the app, bit my fingernails, walked away, made a cup of tea, realised I’d forgot to boil the kettle, made another cup of tea, and went back to Instagram, almost rushing (if you see a cartoon character of legs flailing about and almost dropping my phone… well, it wasn’t quite like that, but the intention behind it was?). I actually remember trying to find the advert again on Instagram and panicking that I had missed my opportunity. I’m not usually one to believe in fate, in destiny, it sounds so cliché, this isn’t a hallmark movie. But I literally had a moment where I thought I had allowed a brilliant opportunity to pass me by. I literally thought, “What if this is the moment I needed? What if this is my opportunity to make a difference? What if this will give me the information, tools and connections I need to get started with my business?”

But I thankfully found it again (don’t ask me how!), and I applied.

The last two to three weeks, however, like I have said before, has been a mix of information, links, companies, people, pictures, hashtags, ideas, words, all melding into one confusing slush. So much was happening all at once that my little brain was struggling to keep up with it all. I was still stuck on the concept of what the UN Women actually did that I was struggling to take anything else in. It was going in, my brain was picking up the chunks, they were multiplying in it’s hands, breaking apart, running amok, painting on the walls, and my brain would give me a startled expression and say… “I’m sorry, what do we do with all this?”

There was even a reflection on the UN Women’s in-person event, my panic of whether I utilized that time effectively enough, whether I contributed to the discussion enough. I genuinely still worry that my brain was stuck (hyper-focusing) on one issue (I remember being still annoyed that applying ‘policies’ isn’t enough, that we actually need action from those policies, we need accountability… that chuck had managed to avoid capture, escaped into a remote area of my brain and paint my childhood cat bright green… sorry Fluffy) that I probably didn’t contribute well enough as much as I should. Never mind my neurodivergent brain was struggling with what I actually wanted to say and actually making it tangible and coherent for real people to understand. I was literally a dear in headlights. There were so many enthusiastic, emotional, and downright brilliant women (and man!), that I felt so small in comparison. There was a journalist, a digital media specialist, a project manager, a policy maker, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, there was so many to keep up with, to be honest. But they all had one thing in common; they all knew what they wanted to say about the topic we were supposed to be discussing. Best I can do is “I make computers go burr?” I still see one girl’s look as we had to break away from our small group and come up with ideas, the first thing I said when she asked me what I was thinking was “I have no idea!” and laugh awkwardly, where as she already knew exactly what she wanted to say. I was struggling too to take in what she very enthusiastically needed to say, as the chatter behind me grew, the chunk with the green paint had moved onto a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ wall hanging at the back of my skull, and my inner voice was reminiscing over the awkward laugh while rocking back and forth quietly sobbing.

But I’m trying not to beat myself up, because I am still taking away a lot, I still contributed to conversations which at least, hopefully, sparked a discussion on points maybe missed, and there are many opportunities now after CSW67. I also know that some of the ideas I had were still in-line with what others had said already, which, I am going to take away as me being on the same lines as the others. At least I wasn’t way off with the fairies… watching the trail of green footprints.

Besides, my main takeaway, if anything, is the enthusiasm of learning more and doing more for gender equality. We are 300 years off, globally, to be even close to being entirely equal. I’m not happy with that. As many others aren’t. I want to do something about it.

But, of course, this post is Part 2 of #CrackingTheCode – Serving or Surveilling Women (there are links on the bottom of this post if you missed the first one (how rude) and need to catch up). This post is mostly going to be discussing my own thoughts on the topic that I joined in on, I could continue talking about other topics, gender bias in AI and algorithms (or as you may now come to know as the chunk with the green paint who has decided to chain itself to a tree – don’t ask me where the tree came from), limited access to funding (slightly smaller chunk that is writing numbers on the walls around the green paw-prints – also don’t ask), the broken record of issues with the gender pay gap and lack of women in leadership positions (the ones who have been there for a while who are dusting off their cobwebs and handing out maps). So, let’s focus on this chunk that managed to fall into a hole, get stuck there and is yelling obscenities to the light at the top.

(Crap, my cup of tea is cold)

Just to recap, the team I was in discussed:

“As we store more and more of our lives online, and institutions are able to access our data to serve us with increasingly personalised and relevant offers, how do we protect privacy for those who are most vulnerable to exploitation – both by the Private Sector, and by the State?”

Following instructions, we started off by introducing ourselves, who we are and what we do, writing down emotive words onto post-it notes to use as motivators, which, accidentally, took up a fair chunk of time. We then split off into pairs to discuss ideas – we had a few pointers to help. I forget what they are, but I remember reading ‘policies’ and that’s when my brain went off on it’s own little adventure causing havoc inside my brain. We then went into groups of four, discussing the ideas we had to whittle them down, which we realised we were pretty much all on the same lines, and then we went back to the group of us to recollect the ideas and collate them into a more coherent format.

Not only were there those of us in the in-person event, but there were many online too. Although we didn’t interact too much, besides cheering for the camera.

Some of the ideas I remember were:

  • Enhancing polices and legislation to ensure technology companies are held more accountable and have more responsibility; and
  • Better and easier access to information and legal aid.

There were others, but with all the information floating around (the havoc of the chunks too), it was hard to keep up with it all. But there will be a Post Event in a few weeks, so I can likely post a Part 3 update. Instead, I will explain my own experiences and reflections.

From my point of view, this topic, or at least online safety, has been instilled into me from an early age. Back in the 90s and the early 2000s when internet was becoming more common in the household, an old school friend and I would spend our free time on the internet. Back then, after the horrific sound of the dial-up modem whirred, we would view just a collection of ‘web pages’. No fancy Java Script or back-end databases. I remember one ‘web page’ my friend found, labelled as a ‘sanity test’, it just had a picture of a Formula 1 car and the sound of what we all now know as the Crazy Frog sound. The idea behind it was, if you laughed, you were deemed ‘insane’ (or words to that effect – turns out the internet says I’m not insane, go me!).

Security and safety on the internet wasn’t as big then as it is now, I remember seeing viruses, but they were merely pesky things that would either pop up on your screen or make your computer run slow; they were merely a nuisance. Of course, the applications of which would probably be more devastating to an organisation that may be utilizing computing technology and was internet facing, but to a pre-teen it wasn’t. Plus, there were some viruses around prior to this that were a little more destructive, but they were unlikely as proliferant as they are now.

However, my dad was a little more clued up when it came to computer technology (yes, this is where I got my technology ‘bug’ from – see what I did there?) and he would constantly remind me to be safe on the internet. I know why, because I was subjected to things that were a little more of a worry compared to a crazy F1 car. I remember seeing videos and pictures of things that no pre-teen should see, stuff that would exist in the deepest of dark web. As I grew up, and went to secondary school, the tone of things I was subjected to also changed, when I first learnt about certain ‘fetishes’, shall we say.

Back to present day, with more and more people getting access to the internet, the worse the videos, pictures, and general abuse in any form came with it (including the abuse of ‘crazy’ tests, which have evolved into ‘what kind of potato are you?’ side note; who else knew there were purple potatoes?). Even before joining the UN Women this year for CSW67, I was already aware of the cyber-bullying, public shaming, intimidation, cyber-stalking, some of which can start online and result offline, some of which I have been subjected to. Then there’s the access to more impossible beauty standards, of which are actually encouraged by algorithms. There was even a piece of ‘research’ conducted by Facebook/Instagram that found there was a link between declining mental health in teenagers (mostly teen girls) and the use of Instagram.

Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram said he has been working hard to get the team to ’embrace [their] responsibilities more broadly’… that piece of research was published in September 2021. I haven’t seen any marked improvement, but please let me know if I’m wrong. Maybe Shar.on485283 who keeps trying and failing to DM me has the answers? Sorry, the chunk with the green paint ran out of smores on the campfire, it was subdued by Glenda – the slightly rounded and weathered chunk you have been introduced to previously as “Gender Pay Gap” – their attention is now back on the hole in the ground to listen to the rest of the story.

Now, a lot of people are slowly getting clued onto these issues (at least in the western world). But what about other general gender bias that exists in technology and online?

One of my biggest pet hates (I say that lightly) is that I KNOW that there are laws around the storage, collection, processing and use of my data online because of the field of work that I am in, but yet organisations, usually the bigger ones (*cough*Facebook*cough*) have data breaches, or GDPR breaches at least, get hit with a large fine and get away with it to do it all over again the next year (you can see some here: ). I know there are some big changes happening in light of TikTok recently, but how much of that is because they’re in the lime-light currently? Organisations are looking at what’s going on and following suit… I can imagine a fat, white, cis-man, eating into another ‘award winning’ steak pie and chips, flicking through his 1001 TV channels, while one of his minions who is ironically wearing a yellow t-shirt and blue overalls because it’s a new ‘hip’ place to work with bowls of fruit on EVERY table, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, who says: “hey, you seen this ban on TikTok? Maybe we should find another income-stream? At least until it blows over? I hear Facebook has rebranded?” (I know the issue lies deeper than that, but it highlights the issue that companies are getting away with GDPR breaches all the time, some are being found out, others aren’t).

I know to not give my personal detail over to people/organisations, regardless of the organisation. I have refused to give my address to recruiters unless an actual contract is being drafted up. I have refused to give websites my mobile number unless it is absolutely necessary (this is why I haven’t got on the ChatGPT band-wagon), I don’t order online unless it’s from a reputable company and is over Secure Socket Layer (https:// – I get my browser warning me if I’m connecting to a site that isn’t), I know to click on “reject all cookies” or “manage cookies”. That’s because I understand more than most.

But who is responsible? The person giving their data out? The organisation who isn’t implementing information security properly? The organisation who deliberately makes it difficult to opt out? Or is it at the government level for making the regulations too relaxed for the organisation to continuously break data regulations?

Another issue is what is done with that data. The processing. Not so much how it is protected in transit or storage, but how your data is being used? There are supposed laws around

One speaker on an event during the main part of the CSW67 was Bill Jeffery. The title of the event was ‘Women’s Health and Well-Being: Integrating Information and Communication Technologies, Universal Health Coverage, NCDs, and Policy’, this was on the 9th of March. He is the Executive Director for the Centre for Health Science and Law in Canada. He did a study on ‘infodemic’ companies and the recklessness of poor information that can be damaging to lives of women. The title of his PowerPoint presentation was “Curating information for self-care: When governments don’t enforce laws to inoculate against and infodemic, companies sometimes are reckless and self-service in claims”. He pointed out that women are more of a target to misinformation than men, such as misinformation around breast-milk substitutes, food and medicines, products and services related to women’s issues (cosmetic surgery, feminine hygiene) and so on. There are a lot of targeted advertisements preying on women, vulnerable or in vulnerable situations, with misleading statements, and sometimes promoting damaging products. He explained that there were even a few laws broken, but they only act on consumer complaints, there’s no enforcement. Of course, this is typically related to Canada, but opens a can of worms, as I’m sure I have seen a lot of this on Instagram and TikTok with ‘influencers’ giving out bad and sometimes damaging advice.

Overall, having policies, legislations, even to an extent having companies fined, is all well and good, but, in my opinion, it’s not good enough. We need to be doing more. There needs to be a review to make organisations more accountable, having easy and free access to information to know your rights, and easy and affordable (if not free) access to legal aid.

Now, to wrap up in reflection of the in-person event, and the whole of CSW67 in general, I now know the point of my involvement. Yes, I did have an involvement in discussing ways to improve the digital gender divide and issues surrounding women in technology, at least within the concepts of online data and online lives, but the majority of it was just listening to the current research, listening to those who are currently making efforts to bridge gaps, and build an enthusiasm to do more. The in-person discussion lasted just over an hour. That 1+ hour wasn’t enough to come up with solutions to an on-going complex topic. That isn’t necessarily a criticism of UN Women in general, that’s an observation, which is why it’s important to instill enthusiasm of more people (men, women, non-binary) to be doing more. It’s not a UN Women’s problem to solve. It’s a world-wide problem to solve. We’re all in this and we all need to be doing more.

I’m now off to rest my brain and find a way to contain this chunk with the green paint (she’s now gone off to rally some troops to start a rebellion…)

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Hi! I'm Alex, AKA The Girl Who Whispered. I am an award-winning multi-genre author, blogger and activist.

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