Coding for inclusion
Imagine a social media platform as a country: it would be a grim place to live, an often-frightening existence for citizens with trolls allowed to run riot full of hate and violence without consequence.
And yet, given that many facets of our lives now play out digitally – from online learning to remote working, many of us are living in that reality, and it’s not a particularly safe space for women, especially those in public life.
As any public figure will concur, online hatred has become part and parcel of the job – and for women this issue is amplified.
For female journalists alone, a UNESCO study found that 73% had experienced online violence while 20% said that they had experienced physical attacks or had been abused in real-life in connection to the online abuse.
Female politicians particularly are in the line of fire. This year alone two high profile political figures who have steered their nations through the pandemic – the Scottish minister Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced they were leaving their roles citing ‘burnout’.
While neither woman has said that online abuse was one of their reasons for leaving, it’s fair to say that it is probably a pernicious contributor.
In a BBC documentary Sturgeon branded the current political climate for women as “harsher and more hostile” than ever before, blaming social media for “providing a vehicle for the most awful abuse of women, misogyny, sexism and threats of violence.”
At 27 years of age, Bolor-Erdene Battsengel became the youngest person and first female to serve as in the Mongolian government as a vice minister in the Ministry of Communications and Digital Development. That is until she stepped down because of sexist cyberbullying.
Now 30 and completing a policy fellowship at Oxford University, Battsengel is calling for social media companies to take a more proactive role in policing such abuse.
“When there’s something that happens in the world, we call 911 so we need to have the same service to emergency situations on social media platforms,” she proposes.
Battsengel says that while many social media platforms offer a report button, “the procedure is just so slow.” By the time a hateful post is taken down, “it’s already all over the internet”.
The former politician also notes how abuse that starts online can quickly precipitate into physical abuse offline “whether that be real-life abuse, or self-harm”, she adds.
It’s a situation Battsengel wants to tackle to protect young women online, making the internet a safer space for them to take up position professional settings.
As a young woman she broke the glass ceiling working in government, but once she arrived she discovered that she was on her own. The statistics bear this out: research by the World Bank reports that women in national parliaments globally hold only about a quarter of the seats.
“Like in many international organisations I was usually one of the only women in the room, she acknowledges.
In government, Battsengel used her position to help transform her country digitally. “We have a huge beautiful landscape [in Mongolia], but one problem has been about how government facilities reach to people living as nomads.”
With a relatively small population of around two million, for people to use a government service in Mongolia they’d need to drive for hours to be able to do so, which is not so inclusive for the financially disadvantaged or disabled.
“These things kind of bothered me for a long time,” she says. So in 2018, Battsengel started engaging with the government to help get more of her country online, and in less than three years the government was able to offer around 1,300 online services.
In some instances, she claims Mongolians have now leapfrogged other European and Asian countries with their digital service offerings: a Mongolian citizen, for instance, can apply for a passport online in two minutes and have it delivered to their home within two days – all thanks to Battsengel’s efforts.
While her time in government was male-dominated, so too, she adds, is the IT sector (“not just in Mongolia but everywhere”) – another area Battsengel hopes to change. And she wants to do this holistically rather than superficially.
“Tech companies have one or two senior women leading and they would make her the face of the company to prove their [false] gender diversity.”
“This is a huge shame, as when there’s a woman leading a project, she tends to make sure that the product is as inclusive as possible especially in Mongolia,” says Battsengel.
“We need to create an environment where girls are encouraged to pursue professions including software engineering and AI scientists,” she adds
Girls Code Program
To ensure this happens she has also focussed her efforts in encouraging more girls to get into tech. In 2020 she founded a programme called Girls Code Program in Mongolia. Although the programme officially launched on the cusp of the pandemic, the programme attracted over 2500 applications for 30 places.
According to Battsengel, the Girls Code Program took on the most passionate 14 to 18-year-olds for a three-month course of classes that ended with each student creating their own digital products.
“In the first year, there was an app created by a girl that helped with security for women living on the outskirts of the city,” she says.
In these locations, she adds that girls and women frequently experience harassment, particularly from drunk men at night. The app designed by one of her students enables females to send their location and an alert to friends and family if they’re not feeling safe.
“I had big discussions with the United Nations about the app, and it loved this idea because it’s not something that only happens in Mongolia,” she adds.
In the three years since its launch, the Girls Code Program now boasts 80 graduates, with some going on to Ivy League universities, and others taking up coding roles.
“These girls come from disadvantaged communities, and mostly from poor families where they cannot afford to buy a laptop for their girls or pay for their internet subscriptions,” she says.
For these girls to be able to take on a position with a wage that will pay for these things is a big win for Battsengel, and Mongolia too.
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