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[Berkman] Nancy Hafkin on Women in the knowledge society

Nancy Hafkin, co-editor (with Sophia Huyer) of Cinderella or Cyberella: Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society, is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on the topic of the book. Rather than focus on knowledge societies within economically advanced cultures, she looks at empowering those who need it. (What follows are real-time notes, full of errors and omissions. Sorry.)

“Cinderella works in the basement of the knowledge society,” she says. “Cinderella has little opportunity to reap its benefits and waits for ”her prince’ to decide the benefits she’ll receive.” Cyberella, on the other hand, is “fluent in the uses of technology, comfortable using and desinging computer equipment and software,” finds information to improve her life, becomes an active knowledge creator and disseminator.

Sue Rosser at Georgia Tech outlines 4 stages of ICT inclusion. (1) Women’s concerns aren’t noticed by the IT sector. (2) Women’s issues are “added on” to existing structures. (3) Women are seen as workers, users and designers of ICT. (4) Women are included as equals.

There are few statistics available globally about the situation of woman and IT, she says. “Without data, there is no visibility. Without visibility, there is not priority.” The International Telecommunications Union is the major source of such stats. Until 2003, they didn’t break out women. They haven’t updated it since 2002. And it only covers 39 countries—only one in Africa, one in the Middle East, in Latin America it’s the five richest countries…The data reflects the digital divide., an organization of UNESCO chairs, had a project measuring the info society. In 2005, it tried to look at stats on women. It’s the first systematic data collection about the situation of women. It found that the Internet penetration does not correlate with the the proportion of female Internet users. It happens sometimes but “there are all sorts of anomalies.” France, Netherlands, Germany and the UK have a high level of Net penetration but the rate of women Net users is fairly low. Conclusion: Tech won’t trickle down evenly by itself. “The gender divide and the digital divide do not move in tandem.”

Where is most attention going? In the West, it goes to women in the IT industry, especially the intersections with globalization, e.g., “issues in women and call center employment.” People also pay attention to women in science and tech ed, comparative access of women and men to the Internet, and women using ICs for political empowerment.

The major challenges: ICTs for poverty reduction and for empowering women. ICTs for women’s health, well being and income. ICTs applied to existing business and enterprise (as opposed to ICT-enabled businesses). E.g., Muhamma Yunus Grameen VillagePhone is exemplary. But she’d like to see more of things like Anastasia in Uganda, a 78-yr-old illiterate chicken farmer when she came in contact with a project called Rural Women Earning Money [pdf]. Using sound and graphic interfaces, it showed them many techniques and skills for improving the fficiency, productivity for increasing the income of their existing enterprises. In Anastasia’s case, it helped her be a better chicken farmer. Anastasia has gone on the road as an evangelist for the program.

Why single out women? Because otherwise the myth of gender neutral technology will cause us to ignore women’s situation. While there is growing awareness of the role of gender in development, but not enough yet.

The existing constraints: Little access. Gendered access. Public access in non-women-friendly spots. Lack of education. Language barriers. Geographical location. Lack of disposable time. Limited mobility. Lack of appropriate content. Technophobia. Gender socialization about technology.

There are also policy-level constraints: Women are absent from IT policy. [I missed some points.] “Are the technology choices being made making technology equally available to men and women?”

“So, is info tech a silver bullet for women or the latest problem for women?” As a problem, the Net increases porn, facilitates trafficking, and is “associated with increased domestic violence and assertions of patriarchy” (citing two African studies) because the men see “their” women using the cybercafe as an attempt to break out. On the other hand, ICTs “can contribute much to the process of realizing human capabiltiies, potential, freedom, as basic components of development.” (She notes she’s citing Amartya Sen’s definition of development.)

Q: (Rebecca Mackinnon) Are there useful stats in any country about passive use vs. creation on line, etc.?
A: The info is scattered. One of the best is by WorldLinks. (She refers to Mar Coumba.)

Q: Do you know of any grassroots projects, where women are designing the programs or technology themselves?
A: Not a lot spring to mind. The Village Knowledge Centers in Southern India are an example.

Q: (Ethan Zuckerman) Are there correlations to cultural issues?
A: We’re trying to get funded to do country studies. Obviously, the factors are varying when you see countries like France and Kyrgyzstan with the same rates of women participation on the Net.

Ethan: In the Philipines you’re likely to find that people jumped on the Net for basic communications use: VOIP, etc.

Nancy: Korea does a good job with the stats. Korea has a program called “Train a Million Housewives.”

Q: (Colin McClay) I think the distinction between productive and nonproductive uses is misleading. Use is like a gateway drug.
A: I agree. In developing companies, the Net offers a way out of isolation.

Q: I’d like to see stats about wome ncreating content as opposed to just using the Net, broken down by country. If you had more women creating, you would have more usage.
A: There are no statistics on that, to my knowledge. On a qualitative basis what’s happening is…that it’s happening. Certainly it does lead to greater usage. You can see it anecdotally.

Q: (Rebecca) In many places, cybercafes are not women-friendly. How do you educate men so they can interact with women in a more welcoming way, rather than repeating online the negative patterns of the real world?
A: The only guidelines I’ve seen come from IRDC…

Q: Is there a project along the lines of giving seed money to the neighborhood grandmother to run a little cybercafe in her home?
A: VillagePhone came to be like that. Many of the village kiosks in India are run by women.

Q: It sounds like we’re assuming the Internet is culturally neutral. Maybe the solution isn’t to create cybercafes in a particular culture, but maybe some of the resistance to the tech is because of the technology. We are in danger of imposing an information imperialism. Should we be using a laptop where a book would do? When you import a laptop, you import the heavy, toxic metals.
A: The emphasis on developing local content is a reaction to this.

Q: How many books could you buy for the $100 cost of the $100 laptop? [Brewster Kahle says you could make 100 books for $100. But the $100 laptop will give access to thousands and thousands of books.]
A: (Ethan) Leaders in the developing world don’t want to be left behind on this. You can’t disseminate your info by buying books. Some developing nations see ITC as a way of developing their economies. There’s a lot of pull. In my work in the field, I never had to “sell” what I was doing. The concern about imperialism might be slightly misplaced.

A: It could be intellectual imperialism. It’s the Enlightenment Project spreading itself. E.g., we’ve assumed that extending lifetimes is a good thing…
A: (Ethan) If we’re going to question the Green Revolution and the extension of the life span, there isn’t much common ground for discussion…[Colin sends it ofline.]

Nancy concludes by saying that there’s so much work to be done…

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