“We know from previous research in STEM that when it comes to technology there are assumptions and stereotypes regarding gender. Men are assumed to be more comfortable and fluent with tech, and therefore more skilled and knowledgeable, whereas women are thought to be less confident and more likely to need advice from those around them.Dr Kovila Coopamootoo
15 August 2023
Online safety tech failing women – despite them being most at risk
Women are less likely to protect themselves online because current safety advice is not inclusive of their needs
Women are less likely to protect themselves online because current safety advice is not inclusive of their needs – despite women being more at risk from cyber abuse and threats than men.
A new study from the Department of Informatics, King’s College London provides evidence of a gender gap in online safety advice and technology – particularly in the way men and women engage with security and privacy technologies aimed at keeping them safe online.
To investigate the causes of this gender gap, researchers led by Dr Kovila Coopamootoo, from the Department of Informatics, conducted a survey asking more than 600 UK adults (approximately 50% women and 50% men) about their preferred online privacy and security methods – such as training courses from official bodies, semi-formal advice from webpages or informal advice through word of mouth.
The findings revealed a significant difference between the way men and women in the survey were accessing online safety advice, with about 76% of the women saying their go-to approach is to seek online safety advice in-person from family, compared to under 24% of the men; 70% of whom seek such advice from online sources, compared to only 38% of the women.
While guidance from family and friends is not necessarily risky, argue the researchers, there is no guarantee these ‘advisors’ have the skills to advise, provide correct information and enable learning. In contrast, the breadth of digital safety advice delivered online is not reaching the large population of women.
Women in the study were also more likely to rely on simple or built-in online protections such as privacy settings, security software updates and strong passwords. By contrast, the men appeared to be more fluent with a wider spectrum of protection methods, including more sophisticated technologies such as firewall, VPN, anti-spyware, anti-malware, anti-tracking, and multiple factor authentication.
In a paper presented on Friday 11 August at the Usenix Security Symposium 2023 – one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed conferences for cyber security – the researchers argue their findings emphasise the need to reimagine current security and privacy design and advice to better meet the needs of women, who are more likely to experience various forms of online harms.
Lead author Dr Kovila Coopamootoo, Lecturer in Computer Science at King’s College London, said: “Women make up over 50% of the population yet they’re not able to effectively engage with digital safety advice, and security/privacy technologies. The stark gender gap in access and participation, evidenced in our research, highlights the gender norms at play in online safety and the role that gender identity plays in staying safe online.
“We know from previous research in STEM that when it comes to technology there are assumptions and stereotypes regarding gender. Men are assumed to be more comfortable and fluent with tech, and therefore more skilled and knowledgeable, whereas women are thought to be less confident and more likely to need advice from those around them.
“This research stresses the need for a gender lens when it comes to assessing online safety opportunities and whether they are configured for and serving the whole population, including women and girls.”
With online safety considered a social good and its equity advocated by international human rights organisations, we need action to bring about greater gender equity in online safety opportunities, access, participation and outcomes.Dr Kovila Coopamootoo
The authors of the paper set out a number of recommendations for researchers, technology developers and providers, online safety advocates and policymakers to consider, to make digital safety protection more inclusive of women’s needs, including:
- Providing advice with a sense of emotional support and trustworthiness to support coping with often complex harms situations, and using accessible language that is not overly technical.
- Tailoring advice to the many specific threat scenarios faced by women (often disproportionally) such as intimate partner violence.
- Ensuring women and girls are equipped with the digital skills needed to comprehend and action online safety protocols, and offering training where required. However, in order to make online protection fairer, the researchers also advocate designing advice and technology that anyone can use to gain optimal protection, irrespective of their skill level.
Women’s safety online is a significant and growing problem. Compared to men, women are more affected by discriminatory and hateful content, according to the UK media regulator, Ofcom, while the European Institute for Gender Equality states that women are also more likely to be victims of severe forms of cyber violence, with far more traumatic impacts on their lives.
Organisations around the world, including the United Nations (UN), have highlighted the need for action to ensure women’s safety online. The United Nation Development Fund (UNDP) advocates that it is not enough for women and girls to simply have access to technology and digital skills but they must also “become active agents of change to create a safer and equitable digital future for all”.
Dr Coopamootoo added: “With online safety considered a social good and its equity advocated by international human rights organisations, we need action to bring about greater gender equity in online safety opportunities, access, participation and outcomes. This requires re-envisaging the current models that don’t best serve women, so that we can make the online experience safer and fairer for everyone.”