On Monday the 18th of June, a panel of experts in the knowledge of feminism and the Feminist Internet gathered in Barcelona for an audience eager to learn and understand what it means to be feminist, and more importantly the impacts and reasons why the world needs a Feminist Internet. The panel of women included Dr Charlotte Web, the leader in designing a feminist internet (website here) as well as the co-founder and CEO of AllWomen, the first and only crowdfunding platform to encourage women into technology, Laura Fernandez. Also joining on the panel of experts was Dr Mara Balestrini, the CEO of Ideas for Change, advising companies on impacts and innovation as well as Marta Ros, the head of Product Management and Product Marketing at B-Wom, a mobile app dedicated to the health and well being of women. Not to forget also the moderator and organizer of the event World Women’s Web, Lily Maxwell.
The event itself brought to light many concerns and questions the people have surrounding this innovative thinking as well as a professional look from inside the world of research and business into why a Feminist Internet is so important for our future and our present. The questions asked in the talk and the honest, thoughtful answers given can now be shared with all in this blog post! Although there were a few set questions, each answer sparked conversation and some debate keeping the audience engaged and included.
What is Feminism for You?
Dr Charlotte: It’s helpful to think of feminism in the plural, there is no feminism only possible feminisms. Thinking of it in this way reflects how feminism plays out differently in different cultural contexts.
Laura: To be able to navigate in any spheres of my life without any influence from outside stereotypes.
Marta Ros: Feminism is misunderstood. A lot of people feel attacked by that word, so why is this word so awkward in current times?
Dr Mara: The way I live feminism is by the way I act it out in the world – much more than any theoretical framework. Making sure that I don’t fall into the gaps of the terrible biases that limit our thinking.
It is interesting how all women with their answers understand feminism as subjective, Dr Charlotte explains how depending on surroundings, background and so on feminism cannot be defined as a singular thing as it is different across the world which highlights Marta Ros’ query into why it is such a misunderstood word. Many believe when they hear ‘feminist’ it means man-hating or some form of inequality when really the whole notion of feminism is something we hope to end when there is a world of equal rights, equal pay and equality in all genders, race and background. As Dr Charlotte describes, “it’s not a cause for women, but a cause for equality.” This notion of falling into bias and stereotypes as Laura and Dr Mara discuss is a common worry for many women and indeed a common occurrence strife amongst societies which needs to change.
Why Do We Need a Feminist Internet?
Dr Charlotte: The internet is such a dominant force now that has been internalised in society, it is a part of us and not really separate at all.
Laura: Being online can be more dangerous than being offline because of anonymity.
Marta Ros: Some people say that feminism is now an outdated concept. But there are still 4 rapes a day in Spain, 39 women have been killed by their partner this year already. The online is just a reflection of the offline.
Dr Mara: We need feminist technology (apart from a feminist internet) because what we have now is pretty flawed – the way algorithms and machine learning and AI work is by reacting by data they are being fed with. The problem is that the data we’re feeding our systems with represents the status quo – ie. not feminist. Therefore, the outputs coming from the algorithms are perpetrating the old biases.
The facts that the panel of expert women touch upon, cannot be faulted. The AI that Dr Mara speaks of represent a male perspective that is constantly reinforced with data it is fed with which is then overflowed and a constant force within the online community, therefore this perspective influences men, women and children online which is reflective of the offline that Marta Ros speaks of. It cannot be denied that there is a clear correlation of societal perception offline with the online, especially in cases such as pornography, a question which sparked much conversation later in the talk. Overall from the answers given, all women agreed that there is a relationship between the offline and online, like Dr Charlotte described, it has been internalised, therefore as a society we need to adapt and prioritize the way in which we perceive the world online, in the hopes of making the offline world more equal for all. This of course means, having more women in tech, more female perspective in coding and the actual writings of the internet, can lead towards such equality.
How Do We Create a Feminist Internet?
Dr Charlotte: The answer is creating drag versions of all existing technologies. That’s the way to disrupt the status quo and push back against forms of power and governance that are unsatisfactory.
Laura: Here’s little hack that you can apply to balance out the algorithms: scroll to the 20th page of search results to find the male secretary and click on it.
Marta Ros: Technology is not intrinsically empowering: change has to come from society itself. Most of the work to be done is offline. Educate everyone, regardless of gender. At home, at school. Governments and institutions need to change, laws need to change.
Dr Mara: Anything that lets people come together as a collective is a good tool for empowerment. First print and books, now the internet. We women have been working very hard, but we’re on the verge of a masculinity crisis. Men are really struggling to find their place. Masculinity now needs to be redefined too.
An important point that Marta Ros raises is this idea of educating, after all, it is younger generations that will benefit most from the feminist internet as that way it can be intrinsically driven into their societal values. The structure of education, politics and so on are all important foundations with the power to really make a difference in society, as the offline influences the online. It is also crucial to note this idea of a masculinity crisis that Dr Mara raises. In recent years male suicide rates have become much higher than female suicide rates with some believing correlation lies with toxic masculinity. As much as there is objectification and body image struggles for women, there are many strict gender boxes surrounding men also. The current climate of social media and advertising, means there has been a rise in these toxic gender roles and as feminists, equality is for ALL therefore toxic masculinity is an issue the feminist internet can hopefully resolve. What Laura and Dr Charlotte describe are simple and effective tools anyone can do online! Simply scrolling past the top searches, the algorithms find will show more representative possibilities whereas constantly clicking on the top search, reflects to the AI that that search is reflective of the people, when we know it not always is.
Audience Question: Could Porn Continue to Have a Role in the Feminist Internet?
Dr Charlotte: The problems of porn are not a technological problem; they’re a social problem. It’s very difficult to make claims about who’s empowered in porn without understanding the context they’re in. It’s very difficult to come to a reasonable position on what should or shouldn’t be censored. And who gets to censor it?
Laura: There are so many levels of porn and so many kinds of fantasies, and they’re welcome so long as you have the necessary knowledge to consume it.
Marta Ros: If there’s machismo in the offline world, there will be machismo online. Regarding porn, it depends who tells the story.
Dr Mara: We don’t want to impose any form of censorship; but if you see a video of someone smashing a cat with a hammer, just because it’s his fantasy, that’s still not OK. It just goes against what we as humans should strive for.
The common message here from the panel is again relating back to this male perspective. As Laura describes, having fantasies is human and natural yet if the perspective is always male, reflecting the offline world, then the consumption of porn is biased. In today’s technological reach children and young people have access to the internet therefore porn has to be less of a taboo and more of a conversation between parents and teachers. There needs to be an education in pornography and an adaption that with the feminist internet, should hopefully come true. This idea of censorship Dr Mara describes is a tricky concept. Ideally there would be an online world where all is available without censorship yet some things cannot be unseen and the internet has reaches into dark disturbing corners as Dr Charlotte described. On the whole, the internet cannot be erased but it can begin to change and with that change, needs more female voices and coders that will serve the online world with truthful representation, the breaking down of gender barriers and re-education the world needs. The offline and online live as one, completely entangled therefore one will also reflect and create the other so to help societal bias, the feminist internet will create equality and with opportunities for women in tech as well as changing attitudes in society, the world can change the internet.
Sorcha is currently on an internship with AllWomen managing the photographic and aesthetic development of the company’s merchandising as well as new products in the making. Her professional background focuses mainly on fine art portraiture photography styled around the human body as well as mostly the female form, trying to tackle objectification amongst filmmakers and photographers and trying to give a new face to female modelling and empowerment. At FutureFunded, Sorcha has managed to learn from the powerful women at the company and take new ideas of business and technology with her into the future.