Mobilizing the digital revolution to empower women
We are living in a fast-paced digital age that has not one but two parallel realities – the physical and the virtual. Life as our parents knew it has ceased to exist; information travels at the speed of light and promises a cornucopia of social, economic and political opportunities for all – especially women.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential to transform societies. They are a multi-faceted tool for raising awareness, encouraging education and literacy, and a formidable platform for dialogue, debate and engagement. They put within reach the creation of an economically empowered and fair society, based on gender equality and inclusion – mainly because this makes sense from both a community and a business perspective.
Its full potential – both for good and for ill – has yet to be realized. One expert, The Economist’s economics editor Ryan Avent, puts it this way: “A third great wave of invention and economic disruption, set off by advances in computing and information and communication technology in the late 20th century, promises to deliver a similar mixture of social stress and economic transformation [as the first and second industrial revolutions did].”
It is beyond doubt that digital reality has altered its physical counterpart through informed virtual dialogue. It has mobilized meaningful engagement between people who have never even met, and likely never will. From the tumultuous streets of Tunisia, to Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, to the earthquake-stricken villages of Nepal, leveraging technology has led to some substantial breakthroughs. Why should empowering women economically through online collaborative engagement be any less plausible? The operative word here is to be collaborative!
The status quo of inequalities and gendered roles can be disrupted by raising awareness and triggering important debates – debates that are as meaningful and powerful on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as any face-to-face discussion. These platforms welcome women online and introduce them to a world where they can voice their opinions, share experience, discuss issues – in short, exchange knowledge. The best part is that not only can they be heard, but they have a sense that their voices do matter across the virtual landscape and beyond. And this is only the beginning.
But how can women leverage technology for economic emancipation and subsequently empowerment? At the UN Broadband Commission Working Group on Gender held in New York in September 2013, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka talked about the way in which ICTs would, in the future, help empower women in many ways; from mobile ‘apps’ that tackle violence against women to the creation of a global knowledge gateway that arms women with resources, knowledge, training, and – most importantly – offers a platform for networking, ending their isolation.
With the advent of mobile technologies and an increasingly high percentage of smartphone penetration in many countries, developed and developing, women’s engagement online with initiatives that can offer them economic emancipation is inevitable. In developing countries more and more women, especially stay-at-home mothers, are now seen using, adopting and exploring ICTs. What began for many as the pleasure to be had from taking ‘selfies’ and sharing status updates with family and friends has steadily graduated into something more significant.
More and more women are wondering whether they could become involved with online business ventures; either to make productive use of their time in the comfort of their own homes or to find another source of income. Some have launched their own cookery or clothing pages; others women have sold their expertise through advice and consultancy services. ICT has put the means of exploiting their talents and efforts into their own hands. They can reach any market – local, regional or even international.
Women’s economic empowerment is a top priority for organizations whose focus is on social impact, and this has led to initiatives such as the Women’s Alliance for Knowledge Exchange (WAKE), an online platform that tries to link high-impact, innovative women's organizations to technology tools and expertise. WAKE also seeks to amplify the work of all women who are leading global change.
Women are the next third billion, the change-makers who hold the key to a sustainable, equitable future. Realizing that we live in changed realities means that we need to understand – both as individuals and with our communities – what that means for archaic, hierarchical – and usually gendered – social systems. Social political and economic change is already underway. Our approach to that change should be collaborative, whether online or off; it should be inclusive and aim to empower society as a whole.
Let us start by building collaborations within our own communities – whether through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other means. Lofty as it may sound, the power does lie with us. We need to encourage the people around us to do the same – and, after all, they may just be waiting for someone to take the lead.
Invite others to talk about their experiences; inspire discussions and dialogue. Most importantly, have the vision to discern talent, bring it forward and then ask those people to pay it forward! Only by mobilizing engagement and starting meaningful awareness-raising conversations with the people around us – both in the physical and virtual realities we all now inhabit – will we become a community of enablers. This is how we will trigger the domino effect we so urgently need.