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Wishful Thinking and Trickle-Down Technology

This is why we are still talking about gender and technology – the glossy covers and case studies don’t represent most women in rural or under-served communities.

October 19, 2015

By Revi Sterling

Seeing What We Want to Believe

ICTD practitioners are afflicted with severe confirmation bias. Most of us started in this field thinking that technology was the panacea for global poverty and still hold on to that philosophy even after books and pundits and experience have demonstrated that technology is a tool, a means – not a solution. And yet, that confirmation bias lives on, because we see the little boy talking into the mobile-shaped rock on the cover of the Economist, or have taken pictures of real Maasai talking on their phones. Our brains create heuristics that produce a tech-centric view of the world, that everyone indeed has mobile phones (and better yet, mobile internet) if this finely-outfitted warrior in the remote Transmara does. We focus on information that confirms what we want to see and believe.

Recently, in a much less remote area than the Kenyan Transmara, women in the Women and the Web training showed me their phones. Only 50% had phones at all, and of those who did, one had a smart phone. How does this line up with all the statements that everyone either has a smartphone or will soon? The total cost of ownership of used and entry-level smartphones is far out of reach of the economic realities of these women, who are learning digital literacy and internet skills in primary school classrooms. Tata and MasterCard will be giving mobile phones to 25,000 women in four countries to try to get hardware in the hands of women, but what about the recurring costs of airtime, bandwidth, and recharging?

Most women get their phones from their husbands. When their husbands upgrade to a smartphone, they give their feature phones to their wives and/or children. It becomes a home appliance. It will take several years then for smartphones to trickle down to women as their husbands eventually upgrade. By making the claim that poor people will all have smartphones soon enough is to gloss over the widening gap of information haves and have nots. Given that women are the most disempowered members of their communities, yet responsible for the health, finances, education and often agricultural responsibilities, women are in need of timely, trusted information. The quality of their lives and livelihoods depends on it… but we know that the mobile internet is just around the corner for them.

Why the Trickle-Down Strategy is Wishful Thinking

This wishful thinking and reliance on trickle-down technology is not going to effectively address the gender gap in ICT use, and it flies in the face of what development scholars have been writing about for decades – that the best way to empower a community is to empower the women, since they make the majority of livelihood and family choices, reinvest 90% of their income back into the family, and tend to stay in the community. There is ample quantitative and qualitative research to support that women’s advancement is the key to sustainable development. So why don’t ICTD practitioners do more to recognize women’s unique technology access and information needs? We see phones. We see women with phones. We see glossy report covers on gender empowerment from all sorts of development and trade association publications. We believe what we see - which may be our biggest bias of all.

This is why we are still talking about gender and technology – the glossy covers and case studies don’t represent most women in rural or under-served communities. Telling people what they see is false is a non-starter, however. They likely took the picture of the veiled woman in a telecenter or interviewed the female mobile money agent in a hectic slum. Challenging their confirmation bias is a hard path. Taking a logical approach based on equality, empowerment and economic arguments may prove a more effective path. Each of these arguments can be presented with numbers and reason, which removes the emotional component or the personal logical fallacies that we all bring to problems.

What Should Happen Next?

If you want to improve a country’s GDP, help enable 50% of its workforce. If you don’t want to perpetuate uneven development and unfair power structures, don’t. If you want to increase the success rate of your ICTD programs, make sure they target women. Wishing women had smartphones isn’t a good strategy, but focusing on arguments that are almost impossible to refute – and changing the conventional ICTD wisdom – is a lot more likely to accomplish what we are all trying to do, which is to use technology in the service of humanity.

To discuss these approaches and workshop your own ICTD initiatives to see how to strengthen your gender programming, please join us on day one of the 2015 NetHope Global Summit for our session, Exploring the Gender Gap: Why Do We Need to Focus on Women?

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