Gender and digital development

My work in this area includes:

My key question throughout has been: in what ways can ICTs enable female empowerment and reconfigure gender imbalance (or not)?

My main research interests around gender, technology and development are these:

  • What are the economic, political and social benefits that ICTs bring to women in low-income contexts? There is mixed evidence from GSMA and Women’s Rights Online. Does access contribute to an increase in income? The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim recently wrote in his foreword to the World Development Report 2016 that “new technologies allow women to participate more easily in the labor market” (p. xiii). In what ways is this proving to be the case? Second, are women able to participate more in governance issues through open data and civic tech? And third, are there non-economic benefits for women through ICTs, such as increasing self-esteem, reducing feelings of isolation, or of greater safety?
  • What are the risks women might face in using ICTs? Both in terms of privacy and security but also any other unintended consequences?
  • How do women develop digital skills, particularly navigating mobile phones and mobile internet? What is the difference between learning formally and informally (YouTube navigation for example, which might be self-taught or by a friend or family member)?

While I understand that all three are broad, not to mention “ICTs” itself are a broad term, I still don’t think there is enough practical, on-the-ground research to understand how these issues might be impacting on women in a different way from men.

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Interview with Nakato (pseudonym) on mobile phone use in our Digital Lives (2015) study

Economic empowerment

Looking at point number one for example – the economic benefits of ICTs for women – what is the evidence?  We write here on the potential of ICTs – particularly mobile internet for income generation, using research with 18-25 year olds in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. We find women using WhatsApp, OLX and other platforms to earn money. This is a fascinating area to do more research in. How do women use mobiles, particularly to earn money? Where does this money go and what (if any) is the link with mobile money (e.g. mPESA)? There’s more in my blog.

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Using WeChat to sell eggs in China (UCL Why We Post study)

Political empowerment

In terms of civic tech and governance, there is little evidence that women benefit particularly from open data or civic tech such as freedom of information or other sites. mySociety’s report on impact of civic tech points out that any imbalance between men and women using civic tech means that only the concerns of that gender are likely to be addressed. In their research on civic tech sites in four countries – USA, UK, Kenya and South Africa, they find that Kenya and South Africa have the highest gender discrepancies of 28% female-72% male users and 32%-68% respectively. For women to benefit from open data and civic tech, they need to be seen and participate.

Social and emotional empowerment

On the other hand, in terms of non-economic benefits, there is growing evidence that access to technology may reduce feelings of isolation for women, and give a sense of being free when other real-life circumstances might be constrained. When I was doing my PhD around 2010 at Namma Dhwani – a community radio and telecentre in rural India – the centre was seen as a space for women to equally showcase their talents (singing, poetry), knowledge (from herbal medicine to child nutrition) as well as to learn IT skills at the computer centre. All this was particularly strengthened under the female centre manager, who the women connected with.

The wall paintings on Namma Dhwani community multimedia centre
The wall paintings on Namma Dhwani community multimedia centre

 Risks in using ICTs

Even back in 2010 in rural India, the female workers at the Namma Dhwani community radio/telecentre faced their own challenges – rumours surrounded one, when her male colleague gave her rides home on his motorbike; another was harassed by a male listener, saying he had “fallen in love with her”. Subsequently, her father came to the station to take her away, saying it was no place for a woman to work.

Such risks are amplified online. The Head of UN Women reported that there is a rising tide of harassment online. As more young women come online very quickly around the world, this is going to become a huge problem, possibly more so because of the visual, non-textual nature of the mobile web in developing countries. Sitawa Wafula in Kenya wrote on her experience of being raped for a Google Africa competition as an example of how the internet had had a positive impact in her being able to share this. Unfortunately, she was trolled so badly that she used the money from the award to set up a mental health helpline.

Time poverty

In addition, might the potential of mobile work end up in more unpaid work for women? Melinda Gates has talked on “time poverty” for women – could this be exacerbated as women are expected to do more unpaid work because of access to technology, e.g. through mobiles? Or even if paid, there is controversy around poor payment and regulation for micro-working sites such as with Amazon Turk, which we should research further.

Cultural challenges

Equally, we can’t underestimate the cultural challenges for women. My colleague Emrys Schoemaker writes on social media use in Pakistan of a male teacher who says of women: “using Facebook is like coming outside the house without a paloo [veil] on your face. Don’t show your face or your body to others…” Another interviewee says “Someone might say his daughter is on Facebook and uploading their pictures. It’s not good. He is not a man, he has no respect. It is a question of izzat (honour).’   So there is an idea of a social space reflecting on a man’s inability to control his women if they are online.

To what extent might women minimize their interaction with technology (leaving aside skills) to maintain the status quo? See our Masika and Bailur paper. (Photo credit: GSMA)

And women may try to maintain that status quo, for example in our research in Uganda on female street traders, Fatuma, who sells shoes on the pavement around the central market in Kampala, says: “At home if you see that the phone won’t make you free, it is better you stay without it. Because there are men who are full of anguish that he can demolish that phone the moment it rings because he does not know the caller number and then he tells you that if you want peace in the house, stay off the phone”.

So these are potential risks and negative impacts after access: trolling and/or harassment, possibly more unpaid work, exacerbating time poverty; paid but unregulated work and so on.

Further research

First of all, of course, we have to caveat all the above with the statement that “women” are not a holistic category. Intersectionality – age, race, class, caste, income, geographic location all impact on women’s use of ICTs. At Namma Dhwani too, I saw how a strong, articulate group of women dominated the station and centre, even though it was meant to be inclusive to all (see here also). So perhaps the first investment in research should be on not just gender disaggregated data on ICT use and access (e.g. mobile) but more data disaggrated by other factors, as well as more research within female networks. In addition, I’d like to work in the following areas:

  • A multi-country study on income generation for women through mobile internet – how do women use these devices for income generation? I’m particularly interested in mobile internet for reasons I go into in my blog. Related to that, in our MasterCard Foundation research we developed the concept of the Digital Day – how would 18-25 year olds in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda living on under $2 a day use technologies through the day. I’d like to extend this to focus on women and in other countries – understand how they use technologies through the day – how does it relate to income generation through the day – does it work around childcare/other? What are peak periods and down times? This could also link income generation to financial inclusion & mobile money payments.
  • What are the informal methods by which women learn digital skills? What is the value of learning through entertainment such as gaming? What is the extent of the trusted network in terms of teaching and learning these skills?
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Anne (pseudonym), on gaming in her free time in our Digital Lives study
  • What are the challenges and risks to women in terms of privacy and security? We need more research on women’s self-esteem, harassment and so called “softer” issues on after access – these are not just developed country issues – in fact, they may be greater because of the image-based, non-text nature of the mobile web in developing countries. The Girl Effect Mobile works across 40 countries exploring some of these areas which would be good to explore more. We also need more on informal learning of safety online (Tactical Tech have developed toolkits but how are they being used?).

There are plenty of other research areas intersecting gender, ICTs and development that interest me – on ICT education for women in schools and STEM in further education, on big data and gender; on open data and civic tech and whether these impact women and men differently, and finally more on research methods when working with women and ICTs. But alas, in the end, time is always limited, so this is just the start!

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