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Gender, Justice and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)

Presented by Gillian M Marcelle

Chairperson, African Information Society

Gender Working Group (AISGWG)

Expert Panel on "Emerging Issues, trends and new approaches to issues

affecting women or equality between men and women"

at the 44th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women,

28 Feb – 17 March 2000

New York


This paper will cover the following issues in summary:-

ICTs -- what are they and why are they important

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a complex and heterogeneous set of goods, applications and services used for producing, distributing, processing and transforming information - - included in this set are the outputs of industries as diverse as telecommunications, television and radio broadcasting, computer hardware and software, computer services and electronic media (e.g. Internet, electronic mail, electronic commerce, computer games).

ICTs are a systemic, pervasive set of technologies that are associated with fundamental institutional, social and economic restructuring.

ICT goods and services have diffused at rates which set many records. Comparisons with other kinds of technologies, shows that ICT goods and services took a much shorter time to reach comparable percentage of the population in wealthy countries. For example, as reported by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU-BDT) development division, average compound annual growth rates over the period 1990-1998 for fixed telephone lines was 6%, while it was 52% for mobile subscribers and for 81% for Internet hosts. When these growth rates are translated into user numbers, the figures present an even more dramatic picture. At the rate of growth reported, it took only 8 years for the Internet to grow from a network consisting of 213 host computers supporting only several thousand users, to its present estimated size of 56 million Internet hosts and 190 million users. The number of countries connected to the global network has also grown from just over 20 in 1990 to more than 200 in July 1999. (ITU 1999a)

As a result of this rapid diffusion of ICTs, the sector has grown in size, scale and importance. Figures for one segment of the ICT sector, the telecommunications equipment and services industry, estimates its size at USD $748 billion, with the expectation that by 2000, it will grow to USD $1 trillion. At this size, the telecoms industry is the third largest industry after healthcare and banking. The ICT sector forms part of what is referred to as the knowledge sector, which is the fastest growing area of the global economy. Between 1980 and 1994, the share of high technology products in international trade doubled, from 12% to 24%.

The producers of ICT goods and services are large transnational corporations and the supply markets are very concentrated around a few large firms. As a result, a few very large players who hold the power and set the rules dominate the ICT sector. The Human Development Report states that "by 1995 the world’s top 20 information and communications corporations had combined revenue of more than $1 trillion – equivalent to the GDP of the United Kingdom." The ratios of concentration in the telecommunications and computer industry are extraordinarily high, even compared with other high technology sectors. In 1998 the top 10 corporations controlled 60% of the total revenues of the computer industry, and a whopping 86% of the total in the telecommunications sector. (UNDP 1999 p.67).

Growth in ICTs has been uneven

Despite the very rapid diffusion rates, the pace at which geographic expansion of the ICT sector has taken place is still very slow. As a result, much of the growth in ICT markets comes from rich countries. Figures for distribution of Internet hosts show that in July 1999, North America and Canada accounted for 65.3%, followed by Europe at 22.4%, trailed by Australia, New Zealand and Japan at 6.4% and all other countries accounting for only 5.9% of Internet hosts. While these figures are only for one ICT application, it is indicative of the broader trend for concentration of the so-called global information society in the wealthy countries of the world. This data also indicates that the potential for unevenness in growth rates exist even among OECD countries.

Table 1, show that across countries with varying levels of human development, there are marked differences in availability of ICTs.

Table 1: Indicators of ICT availability

Level of human development

Telephones per 1,000 people

Televisions per 1,000 people

Personal computers per 1,000 people

Internet hosts per 1,000 people














Data not available



Source: adapted from UNDP 1999, Table A1.3 pg 53

A summary of recent empirical trends and data are presented in Box 1, these data confirm that diffusion rates have been slower in developing countries, and also show that there are many other qualitative differences in patterns of ICT use and deployment across countries.

ICTs:Virtuous or Vicious cycle

In economies where the following conditions exist, rapid diffusion of ICTs facilitates human development and produces material benefits.

The Virtuous Cycle

However in many more countries, the following conditions exist and there is

the Vicious cycle of change

The Wealth Divide

The rapid diffusion of ICTs is a socially embedded process that has taken place in conjunction with other broad changes in social, political and economic structure. Therefore the effects of rapid diffusion of ICTs are not isolated or determined only by chnages in the technology, but should be understood within a specific structural and institutional context. In the last decade of the 20th century, the process of globalisation has significantly altered the nature of economic, political and cultural relations among nations, economies and people. It is now widely accepted that the changes inherent in this process are not unequivocally positive. Just as globalisation has produced winners and losers depending on the positioning of groups and individuals vis-a- vis this complex set of changes, so too with rapid diffusion of ICTs.

The positive benefits of diffusion of ICTs -- productivity gains, job creation, improvements in wealth, enhancement of well-being -- are for the most part, limited to wealthy countries. In those countries, the rapid diffusion of ICTs has been facilitated by technological innovation, economic restructuring in OECD countries, reorganisation of firm-level production processes, changes in functioning of markets and social and political change, and through a series of feedback effects, has produced material and social gains.

Policy makers have been actively promotion growth of the ICT sector and seeking to maximise the positive benefits of ICTs. Increasingly their attention is turning managing the negative social consequences of use of ICTs and ensuring that there is equity in access and distribution. For example, European policy makers have sought to understand how ICT development can produce social consequences that are undesirable and can reinforce existing social inequities and to produce guidelines for ameliorating these negative effects. (High Level Group of Experts 1997). In developing countries, policy makers lack the capability to make the series of sophisticated interventions necessary to promote and manage the rapid growth of the ICT sector and face the burden of uneven pace of development and few degrees of freedom.

Box 1

Diversity in the ICT sector: globalisation or polarisation?

Source Human Development Report (1999) Ch2 New technologies and the global race for knowledge.


Transforming ICTs for gender justice

The agenda facing gender justice advocates is the transformation of the ICT sector so that its effects produce the following benefits across all countries, and are available to women and men on a fair and equitable basis. Without transformation, however, ICTs will not produce the benefits associated with the virtuous cycle for women.

Opportunities and threats within the ICT arena

Within ICT firms there are processes which reproduce gender inequality by confining women to low status occupations and ascribing low value to areas where women are more represented than men. There is evidence that ICT firms reproduce organisational cultures and work climates which are not conducive to women fully participating on equal terms with their male counterparts, or sharing equally in power. While the broad trends show little improvement for women’s conditions of work in ICT firms, there are also suggestions that the frontier mentality of ICT firms, may favour some women who can perform the particular "masculine" behaviours. In addition, ICT firms have organsiational structures which adopt flexible work practices, and for the most part, this has meant greater instability in women’s employment. Much more empirical work is needed to better understand the extent and variation of these characteristics of women’s employment in the ICT sector, and the processes through which power and status are ascribed and attained in ICT firms.

Indirect negative effects on gender equality through the domination of privatisation, and liberalisation approaches to developing of ICT markets. These trends have particularly debilitating effects on poor and rural women, whose access to ICTs is severely constrained when a profit maximisation model is adopted. Since the social benefits to be derived from access to ICTs greatly exceeds private benefits, supply and demand of ICTs are subject to market failure and require public sector intervention.

Markets for ICTs involve interaction between private capital and formal bureaucratic organisations. The business firms and public sector organisations are to sets of formal institutions which embody gender bias through their reliance on technical analysis, formal rule making and social processes with limited participation and lacking in accountability. Through these processes, the objectives of the ICT sector is not orientated towards gender equality.

ICT intensive production produces a shift in composition of input factors, moving towards greater relative use and importance of skilled human resources and knowledge inputs. These changes have induced demanding requirements on societies -- to produce new skills and knowledge, to adapt and cope with a rapid pace of skills acquisition, to effectively apply new skills and knowledge in reorganised production processes. These demands are favourable to women who either have the skills and knowledge required or have access to the resources to acquire these skills and knowledge. They do not favour women who form part of an excluded and marginalised group of citizens who neither have the skills required nor the ability and resources to acquire the necessary skills. When women experience structural and legal barriers to acquiring new knowledge and skills, they are likely to remain part of that marginalised group.

Continuing gender discrimination in education and training do not augur well for equal opportunity to education and training in the disciplines associated with the ICT sector. In all developing country regions of the world, female adult literacy levels, secondary school enrollment and rates of enrollment in science are less than that for males. (For more details see UNESCO data on educational enrollment reported in the Human Development Report 1999 Table 25 p.232).

The purpose of development under a framework of globalisation is the geographic expansion of private markets, which is thought to produce expanded opportunities for economic growth and productivity. Under these assumptions, the priority for development is not human well being, and its achievement is a secondary by-product rather than a goal. Globalisation has often failed to produce this by-product, even when it has led to improvements in material well being. Shifting priority from well being as the goal of development produces disadvantageous effects on women and entrenches approaches to development, which do little to promote gender equality and social justice. Rapid diffusion of ICTs in the context of globalisation has achieved just this result. The rapid diffusion of ICTs has been achieved and facilitated by globalisation processes that lead to significant increases in income inequality, job insecurity, skill shortage and privatisation of knowledge creation. Women even more than men are affected by these underbelly effects of globalisation, therefore a qualification is required on interpreting rapid diffusion of ICTs as having positive impact on gender equality

Globalisation has led to commercialisation of traditionally unpaid work, but it is not clear whether , this is increasing women’s well being as care services move to the market, and whether they are well positioned to compete for commercial provision of leisure and care services which were prviously unpaid.

Increased volatility in international capital markets as they become more transparent and have faster transaction processing capabilities. One example of how "improvements" in global financial markets with its increasing risk of volatility has not benefited women comes from Korea, where during the recent Asian financial crisis, employment declined by 7.1% for women between April 1997 and April 1998, compared with 3.1% for men. In Korea, during this period there was also an escalation in numbers of women suffering domestic violence. (UNDP 1999 Box 1.5 p.40)

Globalisation produces winners and losers. When women’s businesses are positioned among the winners, the effects of globalisation on gender equality may be positive, and conversely if women’s businesses are among the losers, the changes in market functioning may be disadvantageous for the objectives of gender justice. The changes produced by ICTs and globalisation are likely to be positive for women, when they do not support or reinforce existing barriers to economic participation and when they bring about more equity in the rules of international engagement.

Individual, household and community level effects

Women’s use of ICTs is not equal to their share in the world’s population. One set of figures on use of ICT goods and services states that:

" Women accounted for 38% of users in the United States, 25% in Brazil, 17% in Japan and South Africa, 16% in Russia, only 7% in China and a mere 4% in the Arab States." The trend for differentiation in use start early, as in the United States, boys are five times more likely to use home computers and parents spend twice as much on ICT products for their sons as they do for their daughters." (The Human Development Report 1999 op.cit p.62)


In developing countries women will face additional barriers of lack of income, lack of time and lack of training all of which restrict levels of usage. The cultural impacts of ICTs under conditions of high usage and low usage are not identical, which means that if women face restrictions in use of ICTs, the expected benefits of extension of communication networks, access to wider scope of information etc will not materialise. Therefore strategies to remove barriers for women’s access to these information and dissemination media must be differentiated across countries.

Information and communication because of their close relationship with identity formation processes can have direct impacts on gender relations by changing perceptions, status and roles. ICTs can have positive effects of use of ICTs on women’s confidence, self-esteem and status, when through its use, women get access to information which challenges existing gender inequality.

Women consumers may or may not affect unfavourable gender relations by using more ICTs. To understand the effects of consumption we need more information on how use of ICTs impact on particular concerns of women consumers and whether they produce harmful consequences such as on-line pornography and harassment.

Women’s organisations by making use of these technologies for networking and information sharing, have added to the communal level of women’s power and have provided an enabling environment for renegotiation of power relations. At the level of the international community of civil society and development agencies, use of ICTs and the efficiency gains that these technologies provide have been an important way in which women have expressed and increased their agency and undertaken positive action to move towards gender equality.

Political negotiation of gender relations

Transformation of gender relations in the ICT sector to forms of social relations that further gender equality requires processes of political negotiation between groups and individuals with power and those who do not enjoy power

Limited participation of women in decision-making

In the ICT field, the most important decision-making structures include:- the Boards and senior management of private ICT companies; senior management and advisors of policy and regulatory organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union, the World Trade Organisation, World Intellectual Property Organisation etc., technical standards setting organisations, industry and professional organisations such as the Internet Society, national policy and regulatory organisations, line ministries responsible for the ICT sector, and international development organisations and agencies.

Women are underrepresented in all these decision-making structures in the ICT sector, and this has negative implications for negotiating the redistribution of power in the ICT sector. Decision-making affects what the ICT sector produces and how it organises production and interacts with society. As we have shown, the existing systems of production and organisation of the ICT sector negatively affect women and continue traditional systems of gender relations. Advocates of gender equality have little access to these decision-making structures. Appendix Two provides data on women’s participation in regulatory bodies in those countries that responded to the 1999 ITU Regulatory Survey and in Appendix Two --Tables 2 and 3, taken from an official ITU Task Force on Gender Issues document gives data on numbers of women in the technical decision making structure of the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU’s working methods organises the work of this intergovernmental body through Conferences, Study Groups and Advisory bodies. The data show that in the Telecommunications Standardisation work of the ITU, over the period 1997-2000, only8% of delegates, 7% of Rappoteurs and 4% of chairpersons have been women. For the Radiocommunications area of the ITU’s work, over the same period, out of the 132 appointments to decision-making positions, women held only 3! Although off to a very slow start, this important organisation made history in 1999, by appointing the first women to Chair the Council, which is the highest decision making body, outside the elected officials of the Secretariat.

Underrepresentation of women in the ICT sector, takes on significance, because many more women than men are concerned with furthering gender equality objectives and empirical evidence from other sectors indicates that as numbers of women in senior decision making positions increase, the attention paid to gender equality concerns in these organisations also increases.

Crowding out effects

The decision-making organisations in the ICT sector have a self-definition of their purposes and the contribution of their activities to development that is uncritical. Diffusion of ICTs is seen as leading automatically to development, which is viewed as benign and universally beneficial. ICT firms and the formal institutions that set policies, standards and regulations for these firms are regarded as being technical and professional, in which social considerations and political processes have little place.. Women’s interests and sustainable human development objectives are an alternative to the predominant thinking in the ICT arena, and these groups putting forward countervailing opinions do not have power and legitimacy. Numerical underrepresentation of women and the lack of openness and democratic participation in these decision-making structures has the effect of reducing the power and influence of alternative views.

This crowding out determines investment decision, innovation patterns and may cause domination of "modern" technologies over indigenous technologies and local knowledge systems under terms and conditions that are disadvantageous to the producers of indigenous knowledge.

Glimmers of hope

Strategies for Action and Change



High-level Expert group. "Building the European information society for us all - Final policy report of the high-level expert group." . Luxembourg: European Commission, 1997.

International Telecommunications Union, Challenge to the Network –Internet for Development, ITU, Geneva 1999

International Telecommunications Union, ITU Trends in Telecommunications Reform, October 1999.

Mansell, R. and U. Wehn. "Knowledge Societies:Information Technology for Sustainable Development." : United Nations Commission of Science and Technology for Development, 1997.

Marcelle, G.M. "Getting Gender into African ICT Policy :a strategic view" Ch 3 in Rathgeber and Ofwona Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa, IDRC November 1999.

Miller, C. and Razavi, S. Gender Analysis:Alternative Paradigms, Gender Monograph Series #6, UNDP-GIDP, April 1998.

UNCSTD- Gender Working Group, Missing Links Gender Equity in Science and Technology for Development, IDRC 1995.

United Nations Development Programme UNDP, Human Development Report, 1999

Appendix 1

Policy advocacy sources and references -- the African Region
International Policy measures
Beijing Platform for Action
ITU Resolutions (1998)
Regional policy
African Information Society Initiative
National policies
22 African governments have national ICT (NICI) plans
Official Policy documents and analysis
IDRC -- ACACIA country reports
Ministries and government departments
Report of African Development Forum 1999
40th UN-ECA conference report 1998
ITU Telecom ‘99 conference report
ITU Africa Telecom ‘98 conference report
Civil society organisations
ABANTU for Development
African Information Society gender working group AISGWG
African Gender Institute
AMARC African region
African Womens Media Centre
APC Africa Women
WomensNet (South Africa)
Media monitoring projects
LINK Centre (South Africa)