Tech needs women

Friday, 10 March 2017 14:40 GMT

Palestinian entrepreneur Samar Hijjo, who developed the mobile application ''Baby Sitter" that is aimed at raising awareness of women during pregnancy and after giving birth, works at UCAS Technology Incubator office in Gaza City in this 2016 archive photo. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To increase cross-sectoral productivity we must unleash the potential of girls and women in technology, science and math. Or regress.

Digital technologies and big data analysis are revolutionising what we do and how we make things. They are driving production and services, influencing decision-making at all levels and defining who is ahead of the game. They are the pulsing engine of growth. So, to make sure we progress sustainably, leaving no one behind and safeguarding our environment, we need all hands and brains on the technology deck.

Despite this, girls and women are still globally falling behind in the cyber revolution march. Women represent only about one quarter of the workforce in science, technologies, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in developed countries and even less in developing countries. While the Internet coverage is rapidly expanding, the gap between men and women using it is widening and is now at a global average of 12 percent.

It gets worse: three quarters of women internet users have been exposed to some form of online violence, ranging from stalking, humiliations, mobbing, to threats, sometimes spilling over to real-life attacks. This causes crippling distress and self-censorship, and even physical harm and loss of life.

To a large part, the digital gender gap follows the curb of women’s lack of freedom; the persistent discrimination against women and girls in access to education and professional careers; their exclusion from the public sphere; and their vulnerability to threats and violence.

Failing to engage women in STEM-related jobs means neglecting an enormous pool of talent, radically reducing productivity and entrepreneurship, and creating dependencies and inequalities that weigh on the whole community. So how can we reverse this trend and ensure that women benefit of scientific and technological progress?

TEACH THEM YOUNG

To cut new paths for women in STEM careers we have to train girls in coding, web-development and other tech-related skills from a young age.

This can be done, even in the most challenging and unlikely circumstances, as is being demonstrated by Womanity with its Girls Can Code program, which offers the first-ever training in coding and web-development to Afghan girls in public high schools. To make sure that the connection to the job market is made successfully, the program also offers coaching in soft skills – on how to get a job and keep it, introductions to potential employers and tutoring for university entry exams.

SELF-DEFENSE FOR CYBER SECURITY

Women must learn to courageously face the threats of being on-line; move safely in cyber space; and fight back when they are attacked.

These are exactly the kind of training and tools offered by Take Back the Tech! (TBTT!), which was developed by Womanity Award winner Association for Progressive Communications (APC, South Africa) and which is being replicated by Luchadoras/La Sandía Digital in Mexico. TBTT!'s approach, now implemented in 22 countries, enables women to proactively respond to on- and off-line abuse, claim virtual space and creatively influence policies and practices. The ambitious goal is to build an internet free of violence.

YOU CAN BE WHAT YOU WANT

Another strong way to empower women is to radically disrupt the mediatized representation of gender roles. Media can be game-changers for gender equality by giving a voice to women and visibility to their accomplishments in science and technology. A recent example is the acclaimed Hollywood production "Hidden Figures", which tells the story of three female African-American who worked as mathematicians at NASA.

Since 2010, Womanity partners with Maysoun Odeh Gangat, a Palestinian social entrepreneur, who runs Radio Nisaa. The radio offers a wide range of programs that prominently feature women’s voices and broadcast their achievements, aspirations and opinions. Moreover, Womanity recently produced two seasons of a fiction series called "Be 100 Ragel" ("Worth 100 Men"), which was widely aired across the Middle-East and North Africa. The series promotes an active role for women in Arab societies, by narrating the story of Noha, an intrepid journalist who fights oppression, discrimination and injustice.

These are examples of how broadcasters and media productions can shift attitudes and promote gender equality.

THREE STEPS TO SYSTEMIC CHANGE

Womanity believes that cross-sectoral, multi-partite collaborations we can generate systemic change. Here are some way of how this could happen:

  1. The STEM industry, media and academia can jointly research and publish data to identify where the digital gender gaps lay, reveal their causes and share knowledge and ideas for impactful solutions.
  2. We can all work to ensure that women are fairly represented within companies, media and institutions including in decision-making fora and leadership positions.
  3. Last but not least, we can all encourage girls and women to undertake STEM-related education and careers, where they are direly needed and where they will make a valuable contribution towards their communities' progress.

Antonella Notari Vischer is executive director of The Womanity Foundation; Valentina Di Felice is head of operations at Womanity and Servane Mouazan is the Womanity Award programme manager. You can follow Womanity on Twitter at @forWomanity, Facebook and LinkedIn.