Next blog in our series focusing on Covid-19 and the Women and Girls Initiative.
In these times of social distancing, communicating online is becoming the new normal. Technology can help us join in, stay connected, and give us access to services and support when we can’t meet in person. Since March, many services have been delivering at least some of their 1-1 or group activities online. There are benefits to this, but for projects supporting some of the women and girls hardest hit by the Covid-19 situation, there are also challenges.
As we discussed in our previous blog, most of the 62 projects funded through The National Lottery Community Fund’s Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) have generally supported women face-to-face. Many workers feel that being in the same physical space is crucial to building trust, having safe conversations and enabling women to share issues and challenges. Online communication lacks that physical closeness and prevents responses conveying warmth and empathy that can be offered in person (such as a squeeze of a hand or a hug). Online contact can feel rather cool and distant, and there can be the added challenge of unreliable internet connections. It’s hard to feel truly heard and valued with a frozen screen and broken up voice as a response.
And by no means all women are able to access support virtually. Recent research shows that one sixth of the UK population struggle to undertake basic digital activities by themselves – such as turning on a device, connecting to Wi-Fi or opening an app – and 7% (3.6 million people) are almost completely offline. It is of course the most disadvantaged who are the most likely to be affected. Age, disability and poverty are key factors but there is also a gendered dimension to digital exclusion.
Women make up just 16% of IT professionals in the UK and the number of women in the sector has barely increased over the past 10 years. Girls tend to underestimate their digital abilities – as do their teachers and parents – and still see science and technology subjects as being for “male careers” and a better fit for boys’ brains, personalities and hobbies. One outcome of this is that the women’s sector is digitally ‘under-powered’, with many staff and volunteers, as well as service users, lacking training or confidence in technological skills. In addition, gendered disadvantage in the virtual world is compounded by on-line VAWG in forms such as cyberstalking, online harassment, image manipulation, privacy violations, geotracking, and surveillance that can compromise women’s and girls’ safety both online and offline.
Building rapport from ‘cold’ with new clients who have been referred or have made contact since lockdown is often much slower and trust feels more tentative. And there are also some groups of women for whom providing virtual support presents particular difficulties. With women who have English as a 2nd language, visual cues and body language can be especially important. Where women are living in abusive situations they often lack a safe space from which to speak. For women who have been abused online or have used video/ online platforms in sex work, there is the potential for re-triggering traumatic memories. For some, especially younger women, video calls can be experienced as too intense, especially if they are more used to accessing support through an activity such as a craft session or ‘walk and talk’.
Despite the challenges, there has been both learning and service development. For example, Blossom have found that Facebook and messenger work well with those for whom contact needs to be ‘light touch’; and while a lot of work takes place by phone, they make sure to share photos and names of staff online so women can see who they are and put a face to the person who is calling. RISE are trying out ways of building activities into group work by delivering sewing kits with instructions and then women working on them together when they meet on line. Rahab instituted weekly phone check-ins with women at the beginning of lockdown. These have been a lifeline for some and the experience has also increased the project’s understanding of quite how isolated many women are:
“Doing weekly calls with women has highlighted how appreciative women are of our contact as for many of them, we are the only point of contact they have. When you can’t have the face to face, the trust in us is still there so it’s been a very valuable time.”
One of the WGI strategic grants has been provided to Rape Crisis England and Wales for ‘Weaving the Web’, a project to provide on line counselling rooms for use by Rape Crisis Centres across the country. Under lockdown centres have increased their use of this facility and are finding that it can be a very effective way of providing support especially to women who would have always struggled to access support in person – including women with disabilities and rural women. Those who find it difficult to attend ‘in person’ activities due to anxiety or social phobia can sometimes engage in a virtual environment more easily. Not having to travel may also be a benefit (especially in the current crisis) and there are time and cost savings associated with not having to take public transport or pay for taxis.
From a staff point of view, flexibility in working practices through remote working could well be a benefit that continues post Covid-19. Some organisations have already made sure that staff can access shared files remotely through SharePoint or its equivalents. RISE have found virtual working has increased their capacity for engagement with other agencies and professionals. They have been running 2 hour Zoom drop-ins which have been attended by hostel workers from across Brighton when previously they had have been visiting hostels one at a time. They have also been delivering free training on-line and this has increased access and numbers attending.
It’s true that some projects hope the online offer is temporary, and workers express a strong desire to resume face to face work with women and girls, but the reality is that support-at-a-distance is likely to become part of a menu of future services. There is therefore a clear need for women’s organisations to become more tech savvy and to claim space for women and girls in what is still a male-dominated virtual world, whilst at the same time discovering how best to help the women and girls they support to develop on-line skills and confidence for themselves.
Sara Scott and Sarah Frost, WGI Learning and Impact Services
Information in this series of blogs is drawn from the Women and Girls Initiative, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund (The Fund). It is supporting 62 projects with funds raised from the National Lottery. For more information about the WGI, see the project page.
The WGI Learning and Impact Services is being delivered on behalf of the Fund by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR), DMSS Research (DMSS) and the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) – the partners. The partners are delivering a programme of support to projects with the aim of capturing and sharing learning and creating a stronger community of services that has greater influence on decision-making structures across the country.
 Araba Sey and Nancy Hafkin, (Eds) Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Digital Equality (2019) United Nations University https://www.itu.int/en/action/gender-equality/Documents/EQUALS%20Research%20Report%202019.pdf
 Accenture (2016) Attracting more young women into Science and Technology 2.0 https://www.accenture.com/ie-en/~/media/Accenture/Conversion-Assets/DotCom/Documents/Global/PDF/Dualpub_16/Accenture-Continuing-Power-Economic-Growth-Stem.pdf