On the occasion of the fiftieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a parallel event on “Enhancing Women’s Global Leadership through Information Technology” was held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 8 to 9 March 2006. The event was organized by the private sector organization AIT Global and the Office for Economic and Social Council Support and Coordination (OECS) in partnership with the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW).
For one and a half days, speakers from private companies specialized in the IT field (AIT Global, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), Chief Information Officer (CIO) Magazine), academic institutions (Columbia University, Yale University, Dowling College), Member States (Norway, Switzerland and Tunisia), different entities of the United Nations system (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disabilities, Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Global Compact Secretariat) as well as participants from civil society (European Federation of Older Persons and the International Women’s Tribune Center) addressed the enhancement of women’s global leadership through ICT.
The event was held through keynote addresses and panel discussions. Keynote addresses were provided by the President of the Economic and Social Council, the Chair of Statoil Board of Elections, Norway; the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations; Vice-President, Channels and Marketing, IBM; Vice-President, Software Alliance, AMD; Senior Faculty Fellow, Yale School of Management; Executive Head of the Global Compact, United Nations.
The three panel discussions focused on:
- “Leveraging the Internet to improve information exchange and decision-making”;
- “Improving health, education and employment opportunities through women’s access to ICT worldwide”; and
- “Overcoming gender stereotypes to encourage women and girls to pursue science and technology careers”.
The objective of the event was to provide an opportunity for the private sector to contribute to the Commission on the Status of Women’s consideration of its two priority themes: creating an enabling environment for the enhanced participation of women in development; and achieving equal participation of women and men in decision-making at all levels.
Background: Women and ICT
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunisia in 2005, emphasized that ICT should not be regarded as ends in themselves but as tools which can, under favorable conditions, increase productivity, generate economic growth, job creation and employability and improve the quality of life of all. ICT can also promote dialogue among people, nations and civilizations.
- The World Summit on Information Society provided a vision of an inclusive, people-centered and development-oriented Information Society. It expressly affirmed the full participation of women in the Information Society and a global commitment to women’s empowerment and gender equality perspectives in efforts to overcome the digital divide. The WSIS agenda shows that building a development-oriented Information Society is a collaborative effort that involves the full engagement of all sectors in society. Multi-stakeholder partnerships between Governments, civil society and private sector are effective ways to facilitate women’s leadership though ICT.
However, the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies —creating what is called the digital divide. Such an uneven distribution also exists between women and men, thus creating a gender divide . Although lack of data disaggregated by sex hinders an accurate estimation of the scope of the gender digital divide, it has been widely acknowledged that women are less likely to own communication assets, such as radios, mobile phones and computers in developing countries, and represent the minority of Internet users in most developed and developing countries.
The potential gains from ICT for women are enormous. Addressing the gender digital divide would not only improve women’s access to information, knowledge and skills, but also promote women’s social, cultural, political and economic empowerment through ICT, and therefore benefit communities and societies as a whole.
Fostering multi-stakeholder action on gender equality and ICT should be at the center of the recently launched United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development. The Alliance will meet the demand for an inclusive global forum and platform for cross-sectoral policy dialogue—conducted in an open, transparent and multi-stakeholder manner—on the use of ICT for enhancing the achievement of internationally agreed development goals. As such, the Alliance will thrive only with the active engagement of a wide range of stakeholders, with the private sector and civil society, including women’s organizations, playing a major role.
Main conclusions from the event
Through high-level key-note addresses, interactive presentations and lively panels, the event identified a series of important approaches to enhancing women’s global leadership through ICT. The following conclusions were particularly relevant to the two priority themes being considered by the CSW.
A. Creating an enabling environment for the enhanced participation of women in development
a) Overcoming gender stereotypes: women and girls in ICT education and careers
Gender stereotypes in the ICT sector have important implications on women’s access to and use of ICT as well as on their active participation in the ICT sector, since they prescribe what women and girls can or should do. For example, statistics demonstrate that women and girls are under-represented in the field of science and technology, in particular in ICT innovation, production and distribution. This is partly due to their extremely low participation in computer sciences in secondary and tertiary education, even in countries where the majority of students at these levels are girls.
Women and girls’ lack of access to ICT in developing countries stems from their lower educational and literacy levels compared with their male counterparts: two thirds of the children not attending school are girls. Mobility, time availability and lack of local languages on the Internet are other factors that hinder women and girls from effectively using and benefiting from ICT.
To ensure gender equality in the ICT sector, women and girls should be involved as ICT users and consumers, and, more importantly, as active producers of ICT. This can be facilitated through a mixture of traditional media and new technologies, such as print and community radio, that takes into account local languages. The participation of women in planning and implementation of ICT initiatives is crucial. Investment in “content” development at the local level, based on local information needs, is also key to increasing women’s use of and benefit from ICT. As women gain access, it is vital that the information available is relevant to their lives and needs.
Good practices initiated by ICT companies to challenge gender stereotypes include Google’s Girls Engineering Day and IBM’s Bring your daughters to work Day. The objectives of these initiatives are to expose young girls to the IT environment and to career opportunities in the ICT sector.
Gender stereotypes in the ICT sector, which are an overarching obstacle to women’s and girls’ participation in this field, could be dealt with by:
- incorporating science and mathematics in school curriculum for all students, both girls and boys, including in schools with limited resources;
- developing toys or devices to expose girls to ICT at an early age;
- providing targeted support to girls in math/science classes;
- providing role models for girls through school-based events and presentations;
b) ICT contributing to women’s employment and entrepreneurship opportunities
ICT can provide important opportunities for women all over the world, including in education and training, health services and entrepreneurship opportunities. For example, ICT have created new types of economic activity and employment opportunities that have the potential to offer new learning and working opportunities to women in rural areas and for women with disabilities. The flexibility in time and space offered by the Internet has facilitated the development of small and home-based businesses, especially in developed countries. In transition countries, 20 to 25 per cent of entrepreneurs are women, and most of the new home-based businesses are operated by women.
Good practices of ICT contributing to women’s empowerment have been documented at the community level in several developing countries. For example, the project Knitting Together Nations creates sustainable employment for displaced women in Bosnia-Herzegovina by making available their hand-made products through e-commerce. Hipknit is a Nepalese e-commerce project which provides women a fair wage and economic independence. Economic Empowerment of Minority Muslim Women in India is a project that promotes empowerment through ICT, creating information and communication networks and linkages between poor women and knowledge management.
c) Corporate social responsibility and gender equality
Corporate social responsibility is closely linked with the principles of sustainable development and implies that corporations should not only take decisions based on financial and economic factors but also on the social and environmental consequences of their activities, including impact on gender equality and the advancement of women. With its ten principles of corporate social responsibility, the United Nations Global Compact seeks to promote responsible corporate citizenship so that business can be part of the solution to the challenges of globalization.
The private company AMD has launched several corporate initiatives and programmes aimed at facilitating affordable Internet access and computing capabilities to underserved markets, such as “One Laptop per Child”, “Rural Remote Education Project” and “IT Access for All”. These new business strategies and opportunities derive value for the business sector while enabling economic and social change for all. Such profit-oriented models are scalable and could thus contribute to replication of successful pilot projects.
The ICT industry should design new sustainable business models, appropriate devices and financing models that take into consideration the conditions and needs of consumers in developing countries, including least developed countries. Localized solutions should be identified that are replicable and socio-culturally and economically sensitive.
d) ICT as tools for global advocacy
The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, and the World Summit on Information Society in 2003 and 2005 galvanized civil society, including women’s organizations, around the issue of ICT. During the preparation of the Beijing Conference, women organizations identified ICT, such as fax or e-mail, as powerful tools for bring together women around the world, enhancing their participation in regional preparatory meetings, and ensuring a space for women organizations at the Conference itself. Although the Beijing Platform for Action did not adequately address gender and ICT—since neither governments nor civil society had yet anticipated the enormous impact of ICT—the Beijing conference was a turning point on women’s advocacy on ICT issues.
New technologies—from fax and e-mail to “wikis” and “blogs”—have proven efficient for global campaigning and advocacy. They help build communities, bring people together, and can have a great impact on civil society movements and the participation of women in political decision making. By the time of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis (2005), enormous progress had been made: participating activists were writing “blogs” for stakeholders unable to attend.
Another example of the effective use of new ICT in promoting gender equality was related to an Internet-based dialogue on the implementation of the Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, organized by the International Women’s Tribune Center in 2005. Over 40 women’s organizations, particularly from conflict areas, addressed issues and challenges in the implementation of the resolution in their daily work. The opinions of these field-based women were conveyed to the Security Council through the United Nations Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women.
It is important to note that while new ICT can be effective tools for promoting gender equality and the advancement of women, the most advanced technologies can be less relevant than easily accessible technologies, such as radio and telephones. A combination of more traditional and new technologies has often proved most effective. The local contexts, in which technologies are used, should therefore always be taken into account.
B. Achieving equal participation of women and men in decision-making at all levels
Women’s leadership in the corporate world
A recent study by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization working with businesses to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work, links gender balance in the workplace with corporate performance. In demonstrating that companies that recruit, retain and advance women have competitive advantages in the global marketplace, the study provides a strong argument for promoting women’s leadership in male-dominated corporations.
A recent legislative change in Norway has been identified as an innovative approach for promoting women’s leadership at the highest level of the corporate world. On 1 January 2006, a law was passed in Norway that requires Norwegian company boards to appoint at least 40 per cent women in the next two years. Failure to comply would lead to the dissolution of companies.
Other means for promoting women in leadership positions related to corporate approaches and strategies, such as coaching and mentoring (including reverse mentoring of senior staff by younger staff), have proven effective in contributing to a conducive environment for gender equality in the workplace. It was pointed out by some participants that women have to learn how to “market” themselves and promote their image in the company, including by emphasizing quality and consistency of their work, and their communication skills.
It is critical to identify the underlying reasons why, and different contexts in which, women are excluded from decision-making. For example, statistics indicate that in 2002, 75 per cent of executive men in the United States had a non-working spouse or partner while 74 per cent of executive women had a full-time working spouse or partner. Some participants noted that the difficulty to balance professional and personal life, as well as the limited support options available to working mothers, often constraints women from taking advantage of career opportunities. Corporations should, therefore, ensure flexibility in the workplace (such as flexible work arrangements, telecommuting, childcare, and family-related leave arrangements) and actively encourage both women and men to take advantage of arrangements put in place.