Empowering girls through technology: what's the role for business?

The Guardian

United Kingdom

Empowering girls through technology: what's the role for business?

June 19, 2013

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As access to mobile phones and the internet grows, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are playing an ever-stronger role in efforts aimed at improving the lives of girls.


In many countries, however, girls still lag behind boys in terms of access to and use of ICTs. Barriers such as gender discrimination, lack of confidence, language difficulties, low literacy and lack of time and money continue to prevent girls and young women from taking full advantage of technology.


The corporate sector can help girls overcome these barriers in four important ways. It can provide direct support to girls through ICT programmes, recruit and hire young women for technology-based jobs, set an example through its own actions, and use its influence to encourage others to do their part.


Precisely where it will be most appropriate for a company to get involved will depend on its size and mandate, the context in which it operates and the areas in which it wishes to be involved.


Educating girls on ICTs


Directly supporting programmes that work to improve literacy and education is one way to help girls reach their potential. If a girl cannot read or write, she will be held back from using new technologies to their fullest.


A Unesco programme in Pakistanfound that SMS (mobile text messages) can be very effective. Following face-to-face training, girls were sent SMS messages reminding them to do their reading. They also received literacy quizzes. SMS-based programmes can be especially useful for girls in stricter cultural environments because they can take part without leaving the home.


Moving beyond basic literacy, formal education and programmes that help educators integrate ICTs into interactive teaching approaches can help improve learning outcomes and teach "21st century skills" such as use of technology, problem-solving, teamwork and self-motivation. Microsoft's Shape the Future programme, for example, is partnering with government and non-government organisations in several countries to achieve large scale digital access, and will incorporate a gender lens into its curriculum to ensure that girls are included in a holistic way in the methodology.


Recruitment drive


Expanding jobs for girls outside the traditional employee pool and building training programmes that meet the needs of disadvantaged young women as well as those of a particular company are also key areas for businesses. Rockefeller Foundation, for example, is working with a range of corporate and non-profit partners on its Digital Jobs Africa programme, which is aimed at training and connecting marginalised young people, including young women, with available jobs in the ICT and related sectors.


Young women not living in cities or who have limited resources may have trouble finding out about jobs. Souktel's Job Match is an application that works on a basic mobile phone. Employers advertise their jobs, and potential candidates upload SMS-sized resumés to a data bank. Job Match sends alerts when relevant jobs are advertised. These kinds of services can help companies specifically recruit young women in less advantaged communities. More companies recruiting this way could help more young women find employment.


Mentoring schemes


Another way that businesses can help is by providing ongoing mentorship and encouraging girls to enter the field of ICTs, traditionally considered a male field. Girls in ICT Day, celebrated every April, is aimed at connecting girls and technology jobs and at providing advice, mentoring and exposure to jobs in this field. Girls Who Code in New York works directly with girls to educate, inspire and equip them with the skills and resources to pursue academic and career opportunities in computing fields. High-touch mentorship with some of the industry's top female engineers and entrepreneurs is a key part of the programme.


Businesses must put their own houses in order


Alongside all the valuable work that private companies can do to support female empowerment through ICTs, it is important for businesses to walk the talk on equality and diversity by implementing policies that value young women and treat them fairly in the workplace. Steps that businesses can take include:


• Equal pay for equal work
• Producing marketing and communications that are respectful to women and that show women in strong roles rather than sexualised ones
• Seeking and maintaining a balance of women in leadership and decision-making roles
• Not tolerating gender-based discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace
• Paid maternity and paternity leave
• Benefits such as healthcare and flexible work schedules


Lastly, in addition to the above actions, businesses can influence others to support ICT-enabled programming with girls. Initiatives such as mWomen, which has formed a broad coalition that works to increase access to mobile phones for women and girls, help to bring funds and attention to the issue of girls' access and use of ICTs. The Women in ICTs and Development (WICTAD) coalition is working along similar lines to increase women's access to broadband. Two important reports are the Cherie Blair Foundation and GSMA's Women and Mobile, a Global Opportunity and Intel's Women and the Web, both of which provide research in this area and are helping move these coalitions forward towards concrete goals.


The challenges girls and young women face are not small, but ongoing efforts from all sides can help to bring more attention to this critical area so that, in time, girls and young women can improve their access to ICTs and use these tools to move towards reaching their full potential.


Linda Raftree blogs about ICTs and development at Wait... What? and works as the Senior ICT4D Advisor at Plan International USA