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Gender and the Digital Divide - talk by Walda Roseman

March 22, 2001

Presenter: Walda Roseman, CEO and President of CompassRose International, Washington, D.C.

Chair: Kathryn Johnston, Senior Education Specialist, Human Development Sector Unit (EASHD)

Text contributed by Sarah Nedolast

Kathryn Johnston welcomed the group and gave a brief description of the Gender and the Digital Divide Seminar Series' activities. Walda Roseman began her presentation by sharing some of the insights she has gained from working in the telecom field for 20 years and how communications are used as a means of globalization. She then explained the structure of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and her involvement with the ITU. Ms. Roseman explained that the ITU is the oldest UN agency, its members include the private sector, and it is organized in three sectors: Radio-communications; Telecom Standardization; and Telecom Development. She pointed out that the number of women in leadership roles in all three of these sectors is either nonexistent or abysmal.

The Telecom Development sector addresses infrastructure and sustainability issues. This sector established a Task Force on Gender Issues in 1998 to address the issues of gender and telecommunications in developing countries. The Task Force aims to ensure that women have equitable access to ICTs by accounting for the different needs and requirements of men and women, by looking at the effects sector reform has on women, and by increasing the participation of women in all areas of telecom, particularly in leadership positions.

In 1999, the ITU passed a resolution to include a gender focus in all of its programs and a gender balance in all of its activities. However, this resolution was passed without a budget and the development sector has been the only sector to integrate gender into its budget and programs.

In order to overcome the challenges presented by ICTs and reap the opportunities they provide, Ms. Roseman spoke of four thresholds which must be overcome.

1. Access - Creative strategies are needed to bring access to infrastructure to poor rural and under-served areas. This also provides an opportunity to reach more women and children.

2. Accessibility - Women need to be ensured easy, safe and affordable access to ICTs. This includes an equipment and location component. Not only must the equipment be accessible, women must feel secure in the facilities.

3. Usability - Illiteracy presents a problem, particularly for women, in using many ICTs. Three levels of literacy are often required; fundamental literacy, literacy in Internet language and computer literacy. Strong commitment by the community and state is necessary to overcome these problems.

4. Utility - The content of ICTs must be compelling and useful to women. This requires local content, targeted training programs and making sure that women are also content producers.

Ms. Roseman then laid out several areas where the World Bank can take action to help bridge the gender digital divide.

  • Leverage support for policy and cultural change within countries - The Bank should work with governments and the private sector to create incentives for changing attitudes towards women and seeing them as a source of talent and leadership in the telecom sector. The Bank should also work with government regulators and ICT operators to revise human resource policies.

  • Put emphasis on capacity building - The Bank should create programs that help women access capital, provide them with management skills for running SMEs and give support so these enterprises can grow.

  • Partner with the private sector - This can be a means to using creative approaches to bridging infrastructure gaps and other barriers to accessibility and usability through the use of innovative technologies that can leapfrog the divides.

  • Set an example for client countries - Send women consultants and senior women to negotiate with the government and work with men.

  • Be consistent with programs and priorities.

Develop and apply sex-disaggregated statistics.

Ms. Roseman pointed out that the gender digital divide exists in both developed and developing countries. She referred to a recent report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center entitled "Progress or No Room at the Top? The Role of Women in Telecommunication, Broadcast, Cable and E-Companies," which highlights the low number of women in leadership roles in the major media, telecom, and e-companies in the United States.

Following the presentation the discussion focused on examples of creative uses of technology and some of the constraints the Bank faces in doing business with governments and the private sector. Ms. Roseman stressed the need to look at opportunities for enhancing local competition and promoting local entrepreneurs. She suggested that there was a need to look beyond wireline technologies and also to consider using global technologies. Technologies such as "digital conversation" need to be explored further. A staff member pointed out that the Bank cannot change attitudes and create incentives on its own, instead this change must come from the government itself. Additionally, the Bank faces conflict of interest problems when trying to work with the private sector. Ms. Roseman said that the ITU includes private sector and government actors and suggested that there should be better linkages between the Bank and ITU. Finally, when asked what she saw as the priority areas of action on bridging the gender digital divide, Ms. Roseman responded that work is needed on all levels and that focusing on only one or two areas is not sufficient. She gave South Africa's ICT and Gender policy, which was implemented by the Ministry of Communications, as a good example of mainstreaming both gender and ICT.

Updated: 6/9/04

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