Applying a gendered lens to digital technology

UNU Macau team

Jaimee Stuart asks: “How many female leaders get to lead projects that promote the voice of women, and more specifically the voice of women in technology?” At UNU Macau, she is doing just that, while working together with two other female researchers from the Institute, Cara Antonaccio and Min Yang, in two interconnected research projects commissioned by UN Women.

“I come from the field of Psychology, Cara is from Public Health, Min is from Communications. We all have a desire to work in science and technology, and each have a passion for evidence and research. What we have here, and what makes the work of UNU Macau unique, is not so much the interdisciplinary nature of our work. It is that we are bringing our different perspectives into an applied space, doing evidence-based research in the field of technology. And these are gendered and diversity perspectives”, she points out.


Cyber resilience for women human rights defenders


One of the projects UNU Macau is currently working on with UN Women is “Cyber Resilience among Women CSOs and Women Human Right Defenders in Southeast Asia”, which is still in an initial phase.

“We are interested in exploring the cyber security threats, and risk factors and vulnerabilities that exist in CSOs and among women human rights defenders”, Cara Antonaccio explains. “We are doing that through survey methods and interviews with women human right defenders, to get a sense of what training was provided to them through their organisation to maintain their security, as well as their different behaviours related to staying safe online and maintaining the security of their data.”

UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines women human rights defenders (WHRDs) as “all women and girls working on any human rights issue” (“women defenders” and “girl defenders”), as well as “people of all genders who work to promote women’s rights and rights related to gender equality”.

The UNU Macau team working on this project also includes computer scientists Mamello Thinyane and Arthit Suriyawongkul.

A part of the project involves a cyber audit, that is, a technical analysis of the potential vulnerabilities that organisations might face. But, as Jaimee Stuart explains, this cyber audit is not only a technical analysis: it also involves the way people use digital devices, systems, and networks, as well as “the sort of policies that organisations have in place to protect data, to maintain privacy, etc.”. After all, she says, “the bigger cybersecurity threats are human threats”, often related to “people not engaging in protection and privacy, or now wanting to”.

AI and Women, Peace and Security


The other project the team is working on together with UN Women is “Gendered implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Southeast Asia”. It examines the topic through the lens of three categories of uses of AI in relation to Women, Peace and Security: peacebuilding uses; neutral uses; and conflict-oriented uses. Through this lens, the researchers propose to investigate applications in Southeast Asian countries, associated gender risks, and possible technical and policy solutions.

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda evolved from a Resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and recognises “women’s full and equal representation and participation in all levels of peace processes and security efforts”, as described by UN Women.

“The WPS Agenda is an important series of UN resolutions that focus on the gender dimensions of conflict. We used these ideas to understand the impact of AI to women’s human security as well as women in conflict and post-conflict settings”, says Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, who led the research when she was working at UNU Macau as a Senior Researcher.

She explains there are three categories of AI that impact WPS: “AI for peacebuilding, which includes chatbots, predictive analytics, and tools to fight human trafficking; AI for neutral purposes, especially social media; and AI for conflict, which includes disinformation tools and automated weapons systems”.

“Overall, we found that people were very concerned about the way in which social media can have an adverse effect on women’s safety”, Eleonore Fournier-Tombs tells us. However, she adds, “there were also some implementations of AI tools which helped the WPS, such as the development of a chatbot in Thailand, called SisBot, which helped women who had suffered from sexual assault access immediate judicial and psychosocial support”.

Jaimee Stuart says UN Women is “particularly interested in how new technologies are informing the contemporary environment, with AI being one of those technologies that can potentially undermine security”. She gives an example: the existence of “social media algorithms that expose women more to hate speech and discrimination”. But there is also “a huge variety of other ways that AI is being used across contexts in a gendered way”, she says.

The team is using a hybrid research methodology that, in addition to social media analysis, also includes literature review and semi structured interviews, Min Yang explains. She adds the team – which, besides Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, Jaimee Stuart and Min Yang, includes JeongHyun Lee and Preeti Raghunath – already interviewed 16 stakeholders. After writing the final report, the researchers will organise a stakeholders’ meeting to gather experts to validate the research results, she says.

An important aspect of the research project is related to “the need to engage in regulatory frameworks around AI”, Jaimee Stuart adds. “The broader aim of this is to understand the impacts of AI technologies so that we can understand how to best govern this within Southeast Asia.”

In the social media analysis, Min Yang found evidence that social media is being used by civil society organisations in the peacebuilding process. For example, she says that civil society organisations (CSOs) and peacebuilding actors use social media as “a tool and a platform to voice women’s needs, to amplify women’s leaderships in promoting the WPS Agenda”. “They also use it to disseminate messages within and beyond their networks, to engage more social resources and stakeholders to participate in the process of WPS Agenda implementation”, she says.

Jaimee Stuart notes that another “interesting finding” from the social media analysis is that “even when CSOs are located in a specific country, they are advocating across the region”, “they are using social media not just as a national platform, but also as a regional platform to build peace”. “And they are using it not just as a mechanism to support and raise voice and narrative around the WPS Agenda, but also to raise funding”, she says.

“So, in the analysis that Min did, she found that there are a range of affordances for CSOs in which AI in social media can be used in a positive way, and, I would say, in a targeted manner”, Jaimee Stuart notes.

Both projects with UN Women are interconnected and, in the end, will inform part of the training programme that the international organisation is currently running for civil society actors and human rights defenders.
“Women are less likely to be cyber security experts, less likely to work in the space of AI, less likely to be technical support people and to have technical training, and less likely to come from STEM backgrounds. Therefore, they are less represented in the potential solutions to these problems, so that is why you need to take a gendered perspective to this”, Jaimee Stuart says.

Cara Antonaccio believes the multidisciplinary nature of the team brings about “a lot of opportunities for mutual learning”. UNU Macau, she says, “is a really great space to engage with others who may have different perspectives” and it really helps you “to take a step back” and eventually “build up a greater understanding of things”. “Multidisciplinary work is greater than the sum of its parts”, she says. “It really takes things to the next level.”

Min Yang agrees. “It is an opportunity to see the world from different angles, because the world is a very complex place and looking at it from one angle is definitely not enough to understand where we are living.” But it is also more than that, she says: “I see it as also an inspiring opportunity. For example, Cara and I have talked about the possibility of exploring research in health communication, which is very important.”

But Jaimee Stuart emphasises: “We are working in a space where women are under-represented. We all have passion in science and technology, and have expertise in many different disciplines, but also care about making a difference. That’s what I want us to be known for here at UNU Macau. And it is not just about gender, we should be known more generally for working with marginalised populations. Because that’s what we all care about.”

EQUALS – Gender Equality in the Digital Age

UNU Macau was one of the founding partners of EQUALS, Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age, a coalition of stakeholders dedicated to promoting digital gender equality and launched in 2016.  Other founding EQUALS partners include the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) , UN Women , the International Trade Centre (ITC) and global organisation GSMA . The Partnership was launched in September 2016.

The EQUALS Research group, led by UNU Macau, examined gender equality in digital access, skills, and leadership with the goal of identifying the state of equality, reasons for inequalities, and remedies to address the causes of gender digital inequality. The project resulted in the research report “Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills and Leadership ”, published in March 2019.

The report was edited by Araba Sey, who was then a Principal Research Fellow at UNU Macau, and Nancy Hafkin, an international expert and associate of Women in Global Science and Technology. Other experts that worked at the EQUALS research group at UNU Macau were Michael Best – former Institute’s director –, Juhee Kang, Michael Madaio, Lisandra Fesalbon, Yuchao Zhao, Naa Ansah-koi and Don Rodney Junio.

UNU Macau is a member of EQUALS-EU, a regional partnership that originated from the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. It is currently partnering with EQUALS-EU in running a hackathon focused on sustainability. The project, which is being led by UNU Macau’s Senior Researcher Jaimee Stuart, is aimed at involving youth in Macau and across the Greater Bay Area, while promoting gender equality. The hackathon is being co-organised by UNU Macau and Chaihuo x.factory, and will be run as a part of Beyond Week, Macau 2023.