Consumers International

Bias, discrimination and stereotyping: While the digital marketplace brings new risks for women consumers, the consumer movement is rising to the challenge

For International Women’s Day, Hollie Hamblett, Policy Specialist at Consumers International, and Josephine Parmee, Director of Partnerships & Development at Consumers International, dive into the relationship between the marketplace and gender inequality and share a powerful framework for protecting women consumers.

Full gender parity won’t be achieved in any of our lifetimes, and we are seeing a concerning roll back in women’s rights in many parts of the world. According to UN Women, we are off track to achieve SDG targets on gender by 2030; as of 2023, no targets are met or almost met for Goal 5 (gender equality). This extends to the marketplace, itself a societal structure which can uphold and reinforce harmful gender norms and inequality.

Let’s start by understanding the relationship between women and the marketplace. Women have significant purchasing responsibility across the global (over 70% of purchasing decisions from North America to Africa), and are typically more environmentally minded. But this does not always translate into genuine purchasing power. And the marketplace remains an unequal space across genders in terms of fair opportunity, wellbeing, and access to resources.

Women consumers experience discrimination, harm and exploitation across the marketplace; from gender-based price discrimination where women are paying more than men for very similar products, to sexist advertising and ‘fem-washing’. Products can be inaccessible for women, particularly when it comes to banking and credit, and when they are accessible, they are often poorly designed. In some cases, they cause harm through lack of safety and increased toxicity (see Caroline Craido Perez’s Invisible Women for much more on this). On top of this, redress mechanisms are failing to address the needs of women; a lack of complaints data from women means we don’t have the full picture of the experience of women as consumers in the marketplace.

What makes gendered harm in the digital marketplace different?

In the digital world, these market dynamics are magnified – but also harder to spot.  Physical products can be tested for their safety and the price point of products marketed towards women compared with those marketed towards men. But in the digital marketplace – where the ‘price’ of a product is often the data that a platform can collect from the consumer – this isn’t always the case. A lack of cooperation and transparency only exacerbates this issue.

This issue is front of mind for our Members around the world. When we spoke to Fiorentina García from Tec-Check Mexico, she was particularly concerned about the safety of young girls in online spaces – saying it’s up to social media platforms to take responsibility, “Young women and girls are threatened, insulted, and harassed online on a daily basis. A large portion of these attacks occur on social media platforms with no consequences at all.”

We are also concerned by the new gendered risks brought by AI. This year, for World Consumer Rights Day, Consumers International is leading a global campaign to ensure fair and responsible AI for consumers.  We have seen how new tools in the marketplace are already exacerbating gendered bias and stereotypes. Indeed, in one particularly unsubtle example, users may have noticed how many AI ‘assistants’ are given traditionally feminine names.

Other pressing concerns for women consumers include:

Biased datasets. A particular issue here is that many AI programmes are trained on incomplete and historical datasets. This results in natural language processing bias and algorithmic bias, which exacerbates discrimination against women. For example, women’s access to digital finance loans and credit may be limited or blocked due to lack of data on women consumers – or gendered stereotypes being considered in the processing of credit applications.

Data collection and privacy. The creation of profiles of women for digital advertising that reinforce gender stereotypes, built using data collected by FemTech products (in 2022, fears mounted over weak privacy protections that could enable the data to be used against women, such as in jurisdictions where abortions are illegal).

Deceptive design practice. Connected devices in public spaces that collect data on gender without consent, before using it to make decisions on what products to offer for sale to women.

Poor transparency. Finally, without transparency on the source of data, how this data used, and bias mitigation and contextualisation measures, we are unable to assess the extent of the issue.

Consumer protection as a powerful tool to prevent gendered harm in the marketplace

If nothing is done to prevent harmful societal systems being replicated in technology, we are preparing for a future of inequality, building tomorrow’s technologies on today’s discrimination.

When we apply consumer protection frameworks to gendered harm in the marketplace, we can better protect and empower women in the marketplace. By assessing how a product or service might reinforce or perpetuate gendered harm for consumers from the outset, we can in turn prevent the marketplace at large from upholding harmful gender norms and inequality. Consumer protection frameworks require us to implement measures to increase access, economic opportunity and informed decision making. They ensure efforts are made to mitigate vulnerability and disadvantage, to ensure transparency and privacy by design, and to provide effective redress should consumer rights fail to be respected by the marketplace. The UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP) are a valuable and neutral framework that can be applied across cultures all over the world and push us to apply and enforce consumer protection principles for all consumers.

The Government of Argentina’s Guía de Buenas Prácticas en las Relaciones de Consumo (Guide to good practices in consumer relations) is built from consumer protection, human rights and gender rights frameworks and addresses sexist practices that create rigid and limiting stereotypes, which subordinate women and people of non-binary identities. It proposes recommendations to identify and dismantle discriminatory practices through examples that generate healthy, sustainable, egalitarian and respectful consumption relationships.

Pockets of action around the world

Optimistically, action across the world is being taken to apply consumer protection to gender harms in the digital marketplace:

  • Members of the consumer movement are gendering their programmes of work and collaborating with women’s rights groups to better protect women in the marketplace;
    • CADEF (Nigeria) are working with regulators to ensure digital financial services uphold women’s safety, privacy and inclusion.“At Consumer Advocacy and Empowerment Foundation (CADEF), we champion a secure and empowering digital marketplace for all. Our focus on Digital Finance Services (DFS) is advocating for stricter consumer protection laws that prioritize women’s safety, privacy, and wellbeing. We envision an inclusive digital economy where every woman can confidently make dignified purchases online.”
    • CECU (Spain) are raising awareness of the risks new generative AI tools could pose to women consumers. Anabel Arias, digital rights expert, told us “CECU has identified AI as a priority due to its significant impact on fundamental rights and its potential to exacerbate societal power imbalances, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. Since the launch of Generative AI to the public in 2022, we’ve recognized the imperative of raising awareness about its risks and promoting responsible usage. A recent report from Sensity highlights a concerning trend, with 96% of deepfakes being non-consensual, sexually explicit images of women. In Spain, we’ve witnessed problematic cases, including deepfake incidents affecting minors. These challenges underscore the urgent need for public authorities to take action, protecting individuals and upholding women’s rights in the face of AI risks. It is crucial to assign responsibility to companies, restrict certain uses of technology, and educate the public on responsible AI utilization.”
  • The UN Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has hosted a working group to specifically address gender and consumer protection since 2022. The group will launch guidelines for consumer protection agencies on incorporating gender perspectives in their policy and enforcement;
  • Policy action is being taken by national institutions – for example, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) took a step to ensure fairness in fertility apps by sharing four practical tips for app developers to ensure they comply with data protection obligations: Be transparent, obtain valid consent, establish correct lawful basis, and be accountable.


But there is room to go further. 70% of Consumers International Members surveyed highlighted a lack of consumer protection policy that incorporates a gender lens in their country. As the consumer movement, we can help governments and businesses to utilise consumer protection as a framework to end gendered harm from the marketplace and contribute to achieving gender parity in society.

Our call for safer AI this World Consumer Rights Day

On World Consumer Rights Day – 15 March 2024 – we will lead a global conversation on Fair and responsible AI for consumers. Our campaign will bring the consumer movement together with industry and government leaders. We will dive into the use of generative AI chatbots deployed in internet ‘search’, and the opportunities and risks for consumers.



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