The Digital Future We Want for Girls and Women: What Needs to Click at CSW67

By MJ Altman and Megan Rabbitt on March 9, 2023

Participants gather at a CSW67 sideline event, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” held on International Women’s Day 2023. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Our Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy, Michelle Milford Morse, spoke with host Mark Goldberg on his Global Dispatches podcast about what’s driving the agenda at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. Hosted by UN Women, CSW brings together world leaders, grassroots champions, and the private sector to chart a global path toward gender equality. This year, the focus is on ensuring a safe, inclusive digital future for girls and women everywhere.

Mark Goldberg: Is there a specific theme that will drive the conversation at CSW this year?

Michelle Milford Morse (M3): Yes, and in fact, it’s the first time the CSW is going to take up this issue. The themes always have really long names. This year the theme is “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” That’s a long way of saying that Member States are going to take up the issue of how technology and innovation impact gender equality — both positively and negatively.

And what does it mean that Member States will take up that issue?

Well, it means a lot of things. Because this is the first time this issue is being addressed at the CSW — and because technology itself keeps evolving — Member States do not have a history of debating, negotiating, and agreeing to language on the topic. That’s not the case for a lot of the economic, social, or health issues that have been debated at the CSW previously.

Most conversations about girls and women and technology have historically had a singular focus: expanding STEM education [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], reskilling women, and teaching girls to code. And that’s great, but it’s also wholly insufficient. If you think about all of the ways in which technology has created seismic shifts in our lives, and how rapidly digital tools are transforming our societies, it’s clear that girls and women will be left behind unless their unique experiences and needs are fully accounted for.

Held on the sidelines of CSW67, “Open, Safe and Equal: Shaping a Digital Feminist Future,” co-hosted by UN Foundation and UN Women, sought to place gender equality at the heart of the digital revolution. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

So at the CSW, Member States are going to discuss whether digital tools and technology services are designed for everyone. They’re going to talk about closing the digital gender divide, women’s participation and leadership in the technology sector, and gender-responsive tech design. They’re going to talk about transparency and accountability in the digital age, and then, very importantly, they’re going to talk about online gender-based violence.

Member States have a lot to cover at the CSW. And not only are they not able to rely upon established language from the past, but they’re also going to be debating something that is evolving every day.

So I take it that what this CSW is trying to do is address systemic issues around digital inclusion of women and girls, not just calling for more STEM education, but designing whole technological systems in ways that put women and girls at the forefront. Are there specific outcomes that we might expect from CSW to that end?

That remains to be seen. I’m eager to see where their conclusions land. But I really like how you started that question, because I think it gets to the heart of what we should expect. Like you said, this is about systems. It’s not just about gauzy terms like “empowerment” or “innovation,” but rather, it’s about the kind of inclusive, holistic rights-based agenda we can all agree to that will topple the exclusion and harm that many girls and women rightly associate with technology and innovation. How high can we raise our ambition?

"This is about systems. It’s not just about gauzy terms like 'empowerment' or 'innovation' ... How high can we raise our ambition?"

Michelle Milford Morse

Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy

This digital transformation in our societies is allowing for unprecedented advances that can improve all kinds of social and economic outcomes, but it’s also giving rise to these profound new challenges that may deepen existing gender inequalities. Think about the use of AI [artificial intelligence] or deepfakes, or think about the ability for technology to be used to perpetuate violence against women.

We already have these structural and systemic barriers, from gaps in legal protection to political engagement, to economic opportunity, education, safety and health. And you layer on top of that this digital transformation that girls and women don’t have full access to: understanding of, or the ability to shape.

So if this were a different topic, one that’s been debated extensively before at the UN — such as around sexual and reproductive health, for example — you would know where certain countries stand. But this is relatively new territory. Have you seen any political or diplomatic divides suggesting what some of the key points of contention might be in this debate?

This is uncharted territory, but it also brings with it some old baggage.

One of the things I know Member States and other advocates are discussing is the idea of gender itself. We use the term “gender-based violence,” but there are some more regressive countries that are using that term in a way that ignores the very real violence that girls and women experience online. They willfully misconstrue the concept of gender as being more about LGBTQ rights and trans rights as a way to opt out of a debate about online violence against girls and women in all their diversity as a human rights violation.

As someone who’s not a disinterested observer of what’s happening this year, but as an advocate for inclusion and gender equality, what are you looking to see come out of this CSW in terms of technological access and closing the digital divide? Are there specific maximalist outcomes that you’d be looking toward?

At the heart of it, I want inclusion and I want rights. Let’s move away from that kind of framework of empowerment that rests in the hands of girls getting education and technology in school. Yes, we have to do that, but I want us to move more to a framework of rights and inclusion.

And I want a really serious debate about online spaces and violence against women. A really serious debate about making sure that women have leadership positions when it comes to making decisions about transparency, data, accountability, and law. I hope we stop seeing these as issues that are wholly separate from gender equality, but actually deeply related to the fates and futures of women in countries and their political ambitions, their ability to participate in economies, their ability to be part of society. That’s maximalist for sure. But it’s what I want. And I think it is within our grasp if we take these issues really seriously.

Young girls watch a Bollywood comedy on a smartphone. Ensuring the safety of girls and women in online spaces, including the prevention of online gender-based violence, topped the agenda at CSW67. Photo: UNICEF/Sri Kolari

So speaking of women’s political inclusion, the CSW made some headlines last year when the U.S. organized a diplomatic effort to secure a vote at the Economic and Social Council at the UN (ECOSOC) to remove Iran from CSW. I don’t recall, having covered the UN for as long as I have, that such a vote had been taken, at least in the last 20 years or so. I’ve been following these things. What’s your take on that decision by the U.S., which was supported by a sufficient number of other countries to boot Iran from CSW?

As long as you’ve been watching the U.N, you haven’t seen that happen. That’s because it was truly unprecedented.

So it wasn’t just me.

It wasn’t just you. In fact, it was a truly unprecedented decision adopted by ECOSOC. It has 54 Members from the UN’s five regional blocs. The U.S. introduced this resolution and it received, as I recall, 29 votes in favor, eight against, and 16 abstaining. The Members vote in secret ballots.

My take on it is that it showed how concern about women’s rights and the lives of girls and women in Iran is really widespread — so widespread that it reached this UN Commission. It felt like a victory for girls’ and women’s rights, which are deeply threatened in every region of the world — and every reliable source tells us so.

I do think that that vote also underscores that CSW does not happen in a vacuum. It’s not apart from broader geopolitics and trends. As we start this CSW, it’s been over one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. I’m curious to learn if you have seen any ripple effects from that very seismic geopolitical event. How is that impacting discussions at CSW or is the nature of the conversation this year at least somewhat insulated from that?

No, I would say it’s not insulated. When it comes to gender equality, there’s a lot to be worried about.

The invasion of Ukraine and what is happening in Iran both give us examples of that. And also serve as a reminder that gender equality is part of geopolitics and vice versa.

But even on our toughest days, we see global solidarity that is deeply inspiring: Ukrainian feminists wrote a statement in solidarity with Iranian women. Gender equality is political, and that’s because it’s about women having equal social, political, and economic power affecting all kinds of intergovernmental negotiations among Member States, because the fates and futures of half of humanity — and our failure — are always there.

Leaders and gender equality advocates gathered at the Opening Session of the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, France on June 30, 2021. Photo: UN Women/Fabrice Gentile

So this CSW coincides with the halfway mark for something called Generation Equality, which was this major push by the United Nations to create momentum toward irreversible progress on gender equality. Can you explain what the motivation was behind initially creating Generation Equality, and where things stand at this midpoint moment?

Absolutely. So, back in 1995, the world gathered for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This is still considered one of the biggest gatherings for women’s rights and it’s certainly a high-water mark for the global women’s movement

The year 2020, of course, marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference. But as everybody knows, we were in the midst of a global pandemic when that anniversary rolled around. And on top of that, there was a lot of concern that we wouldn’t be able to garner the same level of global solidarity and enthusiasm for gender equality that we saw 25 years ago. The Governments of Mexico and France really stepped up and gave life to the Generation Equality Forum and its global movement the following year, in 2021. In the end, commitments pledged during Generation Equality totaled more than $40 billion. Now, that’s more than gender equality ever gets in one day. But it’s also less than half of what the world spends on candy every year. So it’s both an amazing number and a completely insufficient one. We need to push further and faster to both realize those commitments and raise our collective ambition on gender equality.

Fast forward to September 2023, and we’re marking the halfway point to Generation Equality’s five-year plan to accelerate progress. This is a really important moment, one that is incredibly relevant to women and girls and their rights and futures.

And presumably, in September those who made the initial pledges back in 2021 — governments, civil society organizations, and private sector groups — will have to demonstrate to their peers that they have turned those pledges into actual commitments.

Absolutely. Accountability matters so much, and at the same time, we need to crowd in more commitment makers. We need to keep ambition high and keep making the tent bigger, bringing more and more people in to show the world that gender inequality doesn’t have to be inevitable. We don’t have to tolerate it. It doesn’t have to be the way the world operates. We can have a fairer future, freer future for everybody. We can get this done, together.

"Gender inequality doesn’t have to be inevitable. We don’t have to tolerate it."

Michelle Milford Morse

Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy

Well, Michelle, thank you so much for your time, and good luck at the CSW this year.

Thank you so much, Mark. Come out and join us. It’s a wonderful festival for equality. We’re looking forward to it.

Listen to the conversation


Catch up on the takeaways, outcomes, and agreed conclusions from CSW67. Plus, explore key resources and articles.