Lately, it is more and more fashionable to look at gender and ICT issues. This has not been the case for some decades now, when the gender and tech people have been pushed off to side events and the last panels of conferences. However, the word is finally out that gender is now an important topic to have at all ICT and Development convenings, and every organization is trying to do *something*. Just see the UN Broadband Report this year for a taste: 2016 saw the stalling of gender and ICT activities, and a widening of the global online gender gap. That’s not looking good for SDG 5.b, which has become the lightening rod that has stirred up the community writ large. Yet it's tragic to see so much initial interest that could be channeled into something useful if excessive hubris and short attention spans were managed. Needless to say, with the more-than-usual amount of gender and technology efforts being launched, I’ve been spending time at a lot of round table meetings and individual appointments where I’ve been asked what “we” should do to increase women’s access and use of ICT. I tell them. I get blank faces and mini-smiles. I get told time and time again that my thinking is all well and nice but it’s not really a technology play. What can we do with technology? (Preferably so-and-so’s technology or something that is sexy enough to get a lot of funding from multiple technology partners.)
Let’s just break this down into 3 easy parts.
1. Low-hanging fruit
What is this? This is low-hanging fruit. Low hanging fruit = easy pickings. We know (and by we, I mean those of us who study this) WHY women access and use ICT less frequently than men. We have known that for a few decades, ever since WE started studying the introduction of ICT into communities, and saw that the same gender inequities that pervaded all other aspects of society also applied to ICT access and use. And I am not one of the original WE – I’m talking of the amazing researchers who wrote a whole spate of work on this from about 1998-2005 – the researchers who taught me. The near-universal reasons women are online less than men are well-known and well-documented. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (Note: at a recent “global round table” of ICT policy makers and doers, the first idea at the gender table was to research what kinds of barriers women face to ICT access. (Google before round-tabling, people. Do your homework.) What does this have to do with low-hanging fruit? We (all of us, now) have gone after the “easy” barriers: cost (make it free! Given them pink phones!); language (make it voice-based! Text-free user interfaces!); time constraints (we will come to you instead of you coming to us! Here is a per diem!); safety/location (women’s only tech centers!); relevance (let’s do another focus group! Everyone cares about children’s health!). There is another major effort underway to map the Gender and ICT ecosystem – I’ve lost count of how many have tried to do this, including myself, several times as parts of well-funded efforts. I hope it works this time so that we can see just how many girls and women’s ICT training programs there are out there. Every organization in this space has at least one. Some have too many to keep track. And yet, addressing these barriers isn’t helping. Because they are the easy pickings.
Here's the hard one: change the culture. Where are all the women and girls who are NOT in the many gender and ICT programs I’ve worked with? They are not there because they are not allowed. The women who show up are the ones that have a high enough degree of personal agency to be there. The Wall Street Journal piece in Sept 2016 that talked about how husbands and fathers are not letting middle-class wives and daughters use smartphones because they are a moral hazard is exactly the issue we need to change – many millions of men have a vested interest in not having empowered womenfolk under their roof. Not all men want their better halves to be equal halves. Gender and Development organizations have known this for several decades – this is why Women for Women International, CARE, and other amazing organizations focus on men and opening their minds to the benefits of women’s empowerment on the whole family unit. Why don’t men want women to be empowered? It changes the status quo. It changes the social power dynamic of the community. It means power-sharing, which means men give up something so that women can benefit. People, even poor people in other countries, don’t like to give things – especially power – up to others. What is the risk? Educated, empowered women aren’t beholden to men. They might talk back. They might disagree. They might want better for their daughters. They might emasculate their male relatives. They will cheat. They will leave. They will make their own money and realize they have rights. They will no longer be chattel.
If you think this is reserved for rural backwaters in northern India and central Africa, think again. My Lyft driver a few weeks ago – a woman empowered enough to drive a car – asked me what I did for a living. When I told her, she said her husband locks up the computer so she can’t use it at home unless he is supervising, because he doesn’t want her to take something like online classes, “get smarter” and leave him. Control and power. This is the equation that must change.
Technologists are terrible people to change this. We have gender problems in every IT company in this country, because we are told technology is a gender-blind meritocracy, and then we find out that we all somehow act upon gender and cultural cues we can’t ignore – usually inappropriate ones. We also just want to make an app to “empower” women and then go away after 2 weeks, because that’s a long time to be away from home. Changing culture is really hard. Thank goodness there are experts – lots of them – who know how to do this, effectively and sustainably. I don’t want to work on any other gender and ICT project unless it focuses on that high-hanging fruit. Nothing else will work.
Why won’t it work to address all the other barriers to women’s ICT access and use and hope that culture will change? Doesn’t technology give us a way to go around the barriers? Look at all the countries that went from no telecommunications infrastructure to a smart phone in every pot? That is leapfrogging, and it works well when there is nothing there as a base. You get to shortcut a linear process because the trajectory is still the same. There are a few millennia of entrenched gender dynamics, power relations, powerful institutions, and western interventions to content with when we’re dealing with gender. There is no linear path because everyone is an individual with their own human baggage. We can’t leapfrog human nature. We can change it with incentives, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc., but we can’t go around it. Power structures bounce back once we leave – this is a well-documented fact in gender and development work. Gender equity programs can be tolerated for a bit because the community will go back to homeostasis soon enough.
Thinking that technology is the solution to gender inequality is like putting your socks on over your shoes. There is a logical (and in this case, emotional) order. We have to address the social and cultural issues at hand so that all women (not just the lucky few that show up now) can even USE the technology and come to the tech skills building class. If women can’t use the cell phone, they can’t use Free Basics.
Socks before shoes. And yet, almost every technologist I know fights me on this. Because 20 years of gender and ICTD research, and 60 years of Gender and development research, must be wrong.
3. Success metrics
I’ll keep this short. If you are an ICTD funder, you want to be successful. You want the highest number of users experiencing the greatest impact they can. If you think that changing culture is some sort of third rail issue or that we should STILL throw technology at this cultural “problem,” then take this example out for a walk. Men own and have access to the technology. At the most, they will only make up 50% of your potential user base – and given work migration patterns, maybe you’re looking at 30-40% of the population at any given time. Women don’t leave a community like men do for the most part (another topic for another day – but also why we should be training women in ICT maintenance and training). I assume you want your adoption rate be closer to 100%. That requires targeting women as the primary users. Better invest in getting men to understand the benefits of ICT-savvy women and that power sharing isn’t a zero/sum game. Socks before shoes.
all images Creative Commons license, the Noun Project