Gender equality and Internet governance

The recent publication of the 2012 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) initially got me cranky to see that the RIRs are represented on the MAG by three middle-aged white men. Yes, one of those middle-aged white men is based in Dubai, and was born in the Middle East, and so speaks Arabic. Yes, another of those middle-aged white men is from South America and speaks both Portuguese and Spanish. And yes, the remaining middle-aged white man is there because he’s representing an Asia Pacific organization. And speaks some Spanish, too, if I remember correctly. So the regional and linguistic representation boxes can be ticked.

But where are the women from RIRs? The one female representative from the RIRs, Cathy Handley, has been rotated off. Let’s look at women on the MAG from elsewhere in the technical world. Emily Taylor, who was originally chosen as a representative of Nominet, has been rotated off. Nurani Nimpuno remains one of the technical community’s representatives on the MAG. Constance Bommelaer, my colleague on the Commission on Science and Technology for Development Working Group (CSTDWG) on IGF, joins the MAG from ISOC. Overall, there are 23 women in the 56-member MAG for 2012. So there are still 10 more men on the MAG than women. So still not quite gender balance there. But not bad when you consider the following.

Gender balance in the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs)

First, a word of explanation. I am not picking on the RIRs because their gender balance is worse than any other one of the Internet technical organizations. It was simply easier for me to look at five RIR websites (plus the NRO one) than it was to look at around 200 ccTLD websites, 21 gTLD websites, or the wide number of IETF Working Groups. For all I know, gender balance is worse in those worlds. If I have the energy, I’ll track those down later. Also, please note that I am not looking at cultural or linguistic diversity here. The RIRs, on the whole, do a pretty good job in that field.

There are five RIRs. The CEOs of all five are men. Four of the five Board Chairs are men. The Boards of ARIN, LACNIC, and RIPE are composed entirely of men. But look a little closer, and you’ll find some women the RIRs:


AfriNIC wins the gender balance race amongst RIRs, but even its figures are depressing. AfriNIC has a female Board Chair, Ndeye Maimouna Diop Diagne, and a female alternate Board member, Lillian Wambui Karanja. So two of its current 13 primary and alternate Board members are female. And one of its past 24 Board members was female.

One of AfriNIC’s female staff has the title of manager, and there are two vacant manager positions, so there’s a chance AfriNIC will get some more female management in the near future. Out of its current 22 staff, nine are women. But of those nine, only two work in the technical area (the other six in the technical area are men). The rest of the women work in traditionally “female” areas of communications and administration.

Update (Friday 4:24 pm): There is a second female manager at AfriNIC in the role of Registration Services Manager. The website just hasn’t been updated to show it yet, although I suspect it will be updated shortly. The total number of female employees, however, doesn’t change as an existing female technical staff member was recruited for the management position.


APNIC comes second, being the only other RIR to have a woman on its Board, Wei Zhao. APNIC has also had another woman (also from CNNIC) on its Board (known as the Executive Council) in the past. So one out of eight current Board members is a woman, and one out of 22 past Board members has been a woman. It’s actually worse than that if you consider a number of the past members served more than one term, meaning that only two women have been elected out of a total of around 40 places on the Board since the late 1990s.

There are two women on APNIC’s 11-member Executive Team. But both in traditional “female” roles: human resources and an executive assistant. 29 of APNIC’s 68 staff are women, seven of whom are in technical roles. The rest of the women, once again, work in those traditionally “female areas” of communications and administration. I’m including the female trainers within the broad area of communications, but if you want to consider them to be technical, it bumps up the female staff in technical positions to nine.


ARIN has no women on its seven-member Board of Directors, and never has, but it does have three women on its Advisory Council (the body that advises the Board on policy matters).

There is one woman in ARIN’s three-member executive team. ARIN currently has 50 staff, and two vacant positions. Of the current 50 staff, 20 are female. There are two names where I can’t be sure of the gender, so possibly it’s 22 female staff. Eight of the women work in technical areas. One other works in public affairs.


Like ARIN, RIPE has never had a woman on its Board.

Nobody in its six-member senior management team is female. Out of its 137 staff, 51 are female. Of those, 10 are in what I’d consider to be technical positions. If you include the customer services women, it takes the technical total to 15. All the rest are, to be depressingly repetitive, in communications and administration roles. A number of the technical areas at RIPE NCC are completely male, including Research & Development, Global Information Infrastructure and the Database Group. There is one woman in the external relations area.


None of LACNIC’s current Board members are women. LACNIC doesn’t publish an easy to find list of their past Board members, but I think it’s a reasonably safe to assume that past members haven’t been female either. I wasn’t able to find a staff list on LACNIC’s website, so I can’t analyze their staff composition either. But I’ll give LACNIC the benefit of the doubt and assume that their male/female ratios are no worse than the other four RIRs.


The Number Resource Organization (NRO) is the coalition of the five RIRs and also performs the ICANN Address Supporting Organization (ASO) function. As such, the NRO Executive Council, which consists of the five RIR CEOs, is entirely male. And the 15-member NRO Number Council, which performs the function of the ASO Address Council (AC) has one female member, from the AfriNIC region. Developed regions of the world, you should be very embarrassed that it is a developing region of the world that is putting forward the single female representative on this international Number Council.

Gender balance in the IGF

Gender balance is one of the goals of IGF MAG composition, along with regional and stakeholder diversity. Likewise, gender balance is one of the items IGF workshop organizers are supposed to address in their list of workshop speakers. Women form just over two fifths of the current 2012 MAG. And a browse through past IGF workshops and main sessions shows that the majority have at least one female speaker. It’s often not half male and half female, but at least women are on the panel. It could be far better though. Civil society is particularly adept at including women as representatives.

Comparing gender balance in RIRs and United Nations-related Internet governance areas

In the various moments of crisis over the past few years when it has looked like Internet governance might move into a government-only sphere, the technical community has been very vocal in insisting that Internet governance is at its best when it has multistakeholder input and governance. And the fact that the IGF MAG has almost as many women amongst its members as men shows that diversity is being given serious consideration. The CSTDWG on IGF also had a good number of female members, including three of the five technical and academic community representatives.

So compare the gender balance in Internet governance arenas at the international (UN-related) level with what’s happening at the RIR level. Why so few women in key decision-making positions within the RIRs, both within the staff and within Boards? Why is there such a large gender imbalance both within decision-making roles and in technical positions? There are three issues I can see that contribute to this:

  • Women traditionally have not chosen technical careers. But this is changing. There are a lot of women who have IT qualifications. And until women can see that other women are able to succeed in the IT world without having to beat off unwanted attention from the stereotypically socially inept male geeks, amongst other things, young girls will remain less likely to choose IT as a career. But if girls can see that being a woman in IT is not only possible, but rewarding, there’ll be a greater pool of female IT graduates to be employed by organizations and companies.
  • RIR staff appointments are made by RIR staff. Given so many of the senior RIR staff are male, it may not even enter their minds to think that it’s important to encourage women in senior or technical roles. Even if it did, I suspect many of them would use the “But no qualified women applied for the position”. To that, I say, “See above, about women in IT needing role models” and “Look harder, just like you look harder to find regionally diverse applicants”.
  • RIR Boards are nominated and elected by RIR members, not RIR staff. It is possible that RIR members, who are usually ISPs, suffer from the same male-dominated senior management and technical staff issues as the RIRs, and therefore, once again, the thought of gender balance doesn’t even enter their consciousness during the election process.

The Internet community often talk about the benefits of “bottom-up development” in Internet development. But here, it looks to me like RIRs and their communities need to follow the “top-down” example of international UN-related Internet governance bodies that make gender balance a priority.

I am not having a go at gender balance in the RIRs just because I’m a feminist with a mission (although I am that). There is an additional issue at stake here. If RIRs —and possibly other technical Internet organizations that I haven’t looked at here— don’t address the current gender imbalance, then they may find it very hard to sit on international Internet governance forums in future. The RIRs currently only have one woman on staff with external relations/public policy experience they could put forward for an international Internet governance forum: Cathy Handley. And she has already served her time on the IGF MAG. Who else can RIRs put forward right now apart from middle-aged white men? Perhaps one of the very few female members of their Boards if they were willing to fund them? If the RIRs don’t work to fix this gender situation, they may find themselves on the outer as bodies like the MAG look for gender-balanced member compositions. Other Internet organizations, which may have similar gender imbalances, could also find themselves in the same position.