By Gabriella Razzano
I work in the technology and transparency space and I am passionate about technology and transparency. And wine. But like anybody who loves something profoundly, I sometimes lose the capacity to think of it with any objectivity. My love goggles have meant that I sometimes preach about a topic, without reflecting on fact.
I may say Internet and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are important for empowering women, but I end there without always giving enough scientific evidence to back myself up. However, hard facts are being collated, and we should be exploring what they mean more rigorously.
What does the research say?
One thing that is clear from working in the technology space is that technology for technology’s sake is pointless. It’s like getting married because you like a party – why commit to an outcome if it doesn’t relate to a substantial need? If we want technology to empower women, the fundamental first step is to figure out how women use technology. Only then can we effectively explore solutions. There is nothing like a good body of research.
And, fortunately, the research is actually there. The obvious truth? Access to ICT is inequitable. The same structures that impair female participation in societal structures do not profoundly differ online.
What I am interested in is what happens once there is access. There are interesting differences across the continent, but focusing on the South African example, there is one particular pattern that I find noteworthy, which I found in the 2012 paper called: “Understanding what is happening in ICT in South Africa” created by ICT Research Africa.
Though ownership of mobile phones is fairly equal, not too surprisingly men have more access to internet-capable phones than women. This results in men using their phones to browse the internet more. And men (40%) use the internet more than women (29%) across apparatus. Men own more laptops, but women own more desktop computers. The ownership of equipment is therefore an obvious thing to consider – with women using computers more than men at home or internet cafes.
What happens when women get access to ICTs
But what I am interested in is – if, we give women access to facilities and the internet, what do they do? To explain I will paraphrase from the research:
- “Among internet users, there are more males (72%) than females (57%) who first used the internet on a computer, while there are more females (43%) than males (28%) who first used the internet on a mobile phone…
- [M]ost males (71%) and most females (70.9%) were found to have primarily accessed the internet via the mobile phone in the previous 12 months.
- More males use the internet at work (45%) and at home (46%) than females (at 38% and 25% respectively).
- More females access the internet via a commercial internet access facility (36%) and place of education (22%) than male (at 30% and 20% respectively)”.
Though women started using the internet on computers, the vast percentage now access on mobile – this is in comparison to men, whose behaviour hasn’t really changed in the preferred means of access. While there may be a cost consideration, and the pattern follows the uptake of mobile by ‘poorer groups’ because of cost, we would have also expected to see a relative increase in the use for men as well, if this was the sole determinate. Men access the internet more than women at work and at home; this in spite of the fact that we know from earlier women use computers at home more than men (and own more computers at home than men). And women use internet cafes and educational facilities to access the internet than men.
What do these usages demonstrate?
I have a strong theory about this, and that is that women prefer to access the internet in relatively neutral spaces (acknowledging of course that no space is actually neutral from patriarchal structures), removed from the stronger gendered influences of the home and the work place that might observe them or control their behaviour.
Women access the internet where they can engage more equally and more privately. For women, the internet is the new hairdresser – a dominion where engagement can occur free from the power structures that might influence behavior to be more restrained. It must be acknowledged that a lot of what I view as ‘preference’ might in fact be forced by the social expectations that preclude them from being active online at home, but how we can best engage women remains the same: stop thinking about the internet as a home experience.
We need to consider this behavior if we want to create solutions; and we need to figure out how to leverage this behavior to advance access for women. To empower women we need to work with the woman in mind, and work with her mind.
This is linked to my eternal optimism (fuelled by wine); I want to examine individual agency and behaviour and how that can influence the system, because I want to focus on the aspects of our lives that we can be empowered to change. If we want to take over the internet to enhance the lives of women, we must design with the reality of how we seek solace in the ICT space, and figure out how we can enhance that for the betterment of all.
* Thanks to the great work being done by Research ICT Africa team for their pioneering research in the field of internet policy and gender. Their research can be explored here.