Equals campaign seeks to address the gender digital divide

16 Mar 2017

Geena Davis, actress and UN special envoy. Still from ‘EQUALS: Geena Davis, ITU Special Envoy Women and Girls in ICT’. Image: ITU/YouTube

The Equals programme wants to empower girls and women through technology.

Empowering women in the digital age is a win-win situation, and it needs men and women to be involved to make it happen. Those were the key messages from a panel discussion at SXSW in Austin, Texas last weekend, which included young Irish coder and Inspirefest 2016 speaker Niamh Scanlon.

The discussion, which was hosted by UN Women and the International Telecommunication Union (the UN specialised agency for information and communication technologies) encouraged people to get involved in Equals, the Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. It featured a video from actress and UN special envoy, Geena Davis, showing her support for the programme.

Gender digital divide 

The ITU estimates there are around 250m fewer women online than men, that the global internet user gender gap grew from 11pc in 2013 to 12pc in 2016, and that the gap widens to 31pc in the world’s least developed countries. Equals, which was launched last September, is its new initiative to harness technology to bridge that gender digital divide. 

“When we look at the number of women that are connected, we see the digital gender divide is growing,” said panel chair Doreen Bogdan-Martin, ITU’s chief of the Strategic Planning and Membership Department.

She is a driver of Equals, along with Whurley (William Hurley), an Austin-based entrepreneur who experienced a “life-changing” insight during a British Airways UnGrounded hackathon on a flight from LA to London.

Having worked for women engineers during his time at Apple and IBM, Whurley admits that he had an “unbelievably sheltered view” of the problems facing women in science, technology, engineering and maths, but the innovation lab in the sky prompted him to do something about it.

Today, he is a co-founder of Equals, and the global partnership supports programmes to achieve equal access to digital technologies, empower women and girls to create with ICT, and promote women as ICT leaders and entrepreneurs. 

Encouraging girls in tech 

No stranger to encouraging girls to develop an interest in technology, Niamh Scanlon spoke about her experience as a mentor in CoderDojo Girls at Dublin City University, a girls-only class that teaches young women to learn how to code.

Scanlon described how the class went from an initial three participants to 20. “I think that is pretty amazing, just by running one class full of girls,” said Scanlon, who added that CoderDojo is now encouraging CoderDojo Girls worldwide. “At the moment, 29pc of young people that go to CoderDojo are girls. I don’t think this is enough. [They] are aiming to get to 40pc.”

Panellist Dr Unoma Ndili Okorafor described how her experience in Nigeria of having to “sit at the back of the class” in her engineering lectures angered her, and so she set up Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) in 2007, to support and educate African women in technology innovation. Its STEM outreach and mentoring programmes have now reached more than 20,000 women in Africa.

Girls ‘falling through the cracks’

Okorafor, who won a Gem-Tech award from ITU and UN Women in 2016, described how major issues hamper the empowerment of girls and women such as the lack of access to education, the acceptance of girls being married at a very young age and girls bearing the brunt of domestic duties.  

She could see that technology had the potential to solve problems facing Africa such as electricity supply, clean water, disease control and data protection, but that girls were falling through the cracks.

“I wanted to be that voice, I wanted to go back to my community and inspire more girls to consider tech as a career path,” she said. “What we have done is to start to showcase women in tech as cool and successful, [and we have started to] engage girls at a younger age … and show girls that tech is really fun.”

Access to education

Yannick Glemarec, UN Women’s deputy executive director for policy and programme, and assistant secretary general, spoke about how technology can disrupt trends and overcome the isolation of women. He held aloft a gizmo, a small wireless workstation that can be used to connect online, and deliver education and enable enterprise in areas that would otherwise be isolated, thereby changing the lives of millions of girls and women.

This type of mobile technology could accelerate our progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, he explained. “Trends can be broken with innovation [and] technologies offer wonderful opportunities.” 

An issue for women and men 

Okorafor took a moment to commend the men on the panel and in the audience. “A lot of times when we talk about women and why are women not getting into technology, the men head out and it is a room full of women,” she said, adding that getting more women into tech is not just about empowering women. “It is about empowering humanity to solve the next generation of problems that [is] facing us. Women will bring a new dimension into technology.”

Whurley agreed that Equals needs both women and men. “It can’t be an organisation of or by women for women,” he said.

“Why is UN Women represented [on the panel] by a dude? I know you were thinking that! To me, as a founder of this programme, I was incredibly excited [that] UN women sent a guy to represent them. This is about all of us coming together and saying we are equals.” 

Disclosure: ITU brought Claire O’Connell to SXSW to attend the panel with her daughter, Niamh Scanlon.

To show support for Equals, use the hashtag #BeEquals on social media and keep an eye out for International Girls in ICT Day on April 27.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication