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Definition of discrimination in CEDAW
What is included? (30.08.2022)
Förderjahr 2021 / Stipendien Call #16 / ProjektID: 5843 / Projekt: Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Women’s Human Rights

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is the most important document concerning women’s human rights. I’m going to shortly elaborate in the following article on the different forms of discrimination covered by CEDAW.

The CEDAW was adopted on 18 December 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly with the aim ‘to monitor the situation of women and to promote women’s rights’.[1] In its preamble, the Convention states, that the United Nations, the Charter, and the documents by the UN, promote and have the obligation to ensure equality among men and women. But despite all those mechanisms, discrimination against women continues, why a Declaration for the elimination of such discrimination is necessary.[2]

Article 1 CEDAW gives a definition of discrimination against women, meaning ‘any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field’.[3]

General recommendation No. 28 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women states that discrimination, as mentioned in the Convention, means direct as well as indirect discrimination and clarifies the distinction between those two. Direct discrimination is the ‘different treatment explicitly based on grounds of sex and gender differences’.[4]

One example of direct discrimination concerning artificial intelligence is the hiring algorithm (mentioned in the last blog, nr 2). This algorithm was trained on a biased dataset, as previously most hired staff has been male. Therefore, the algorithm filters those CVs containing the word ‘women’, which has a direct effect on females trying to get a job within this system. This is an exclusion directly linked to the sex or gender of the applicant and therefore direct discrimination.

Indirect discrimination means if laws, policies, programs, or practices are neutral in relating to women and men but because of pre-existing inequalities, those neutral measures have discriminatory effects on women. Also, indirect discrimination ‘can exacerbate existing inequalities’ by failing ‘to recognize structural and historical patterns of discrimination and unequal power relationships between women and men’.[5]

Intersectional discrimination is the understanding of discrimination based on sex and gender in combination with other factors such as race, ethnicity, age, class, sexual orientation, or others.[6] An example of intersectional discrimination is the facial recognition system (mentioned in last blog, nr 1), for which it was found out, that the software, cannot or only with a higher error rate detect dark-skinned faces and faces of women. In both sections, the error rate was higher, compared to male and white-skinned faces. However, the worst results have been found with dark-skinned women, which is discrimination based on skin colour and additionally on the sex of the person, therefore being intersectional discrimination.


[1] OHCHR, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, New York, 18 December 1979, Introduction, <>.

[2] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (adopted 18 December 1979, entered into force 3 September 1981), preamble.

[3] CEDAW, Article 1.

[4] UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ‘General Recommendation No 28’ (16 December 2010) CEDAW/C/GC/28, para 16.

[5] Ibid, para 16.

[6] Ibid, para 18.

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