Reflections on Gender and Digital Literacy

As someone who is gradually acquiring a minimum level of digital literacy – and inspired to move up a notch or two – I attended two events recently to learn more about the latest insights on the interplay between gender and digital literacy. One was a gathering of professional women in Lyon, while the other was a global forum on the Internet in Paris.  The first was more focused on gender questions pertaining to digital literacy in business, while the second covered a wider array of subjects, including a broader view on gender itself, having to do with both access and literacy. Even though they were quite different events, it is useful to compare the different approaches to gender questions in the digital world at these two events while also highlighting some of the commonalities

Innovation to Level the Playing Field for Gender Equality

The annual gathering of the Professional Women’s Network was held in Lyon on 9 November 2018, with an overall theme of “From Tradition to Innovation: Levelling the Playing Field”. Thinking of this as an opportunity to see women from all parts of France, I  signed up to attend and was pleasantly surprised to see that it attracted an even larger network, with participants from numerous chapters all around Europe. (The website even shows chapters in Brazil and Malaysia, too, but not any in North America or Africa.) So the turnout at this event, while made up of women and, yes, a goodly number of men, mostly from the Lyon area, was clearly diverse enough for the majority of the programme to be conducted in English. It was in fact rather strange to listen to so many prominent native French speakers from both the business and political worlds speaking in English. But then, the event did eventually shift to the French language as it focussed more on the Lyon region.

The programme for the event was actually very impressive. It started with a presentation by a PWN leader from the Netherlands on the current projections for how long it will take, given current trends, to achieve gender equality globally. This included the depressing overview on how digital literacy is in fact detracting from this goal because of how the digital industry has proved to be so dominated by men. There were several elected officials on the programme, including one who spoke about the Macron agenda for gender equality (equal pay in French businesses within three years, improved maternity leave, a new law on sexual violence and a heightened priority for funding for gender equality in EU and African development assistance) but also about the future of the digital economy.

Another of these officials even suggested that gender differences will eventually become irrelevant because the pace and direction of technological advances in the coming decades will lead to artificially created wombs. This, he argued, will ultimately free all women from going through the nine months of gestation and childbirth. Eeek! Thoughts of a variation of the distorted view of humanity in “A Handmaids’ Tale” crossed my mind at this point. Well, the alarming point here is the implication that sexual reproduction is itself a barrier and the only barrier to gender equality – or at least, the only biological barrier. But this is futuristic sci fi, and not really addressing the immediate issue of the role of technological innovation to enable and empower women to achieve equality with men in the business world.

More to the point of the meeting, the programme did feature a panel of business representatives who shared their views on the effect of digital technology on gender balance in their respective companies. All of them acknowledged that gender equality itself was a long way off, but each one described initiatives of one sort or another to help move this along.  At one end, in the energy-related industries, there appear to be very segregated roles for women. The example given was the effectiveness of women in the occupational safety and health field as a means to benefit from technological advances in at least one category of jobs – but not in the other more production oriented jobs of a factory which are still overwhelmingly male, at least in the energy sector. But even where women are more fully integrated into the workplace, as in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries, there continues to be a gender imbalance at the top levels. Solutions for this were not necessarily technological innovations but more obvious actions like mentoring, facilitating work/life balance, flexible working time and recruitment with a diversity requirement. It was also interesting to hear that in a company like Orange, which does have a similar male/female ratio in the workplace at large and in top management (65% to 35%), the digitally oriented technical skills required for career development are making it difficult to recruit women.  Here the solutions included outreach to girls at an early age, such as middle school years, to encourage technical skills development, even if it means the sponsoring of extracurricular training programmes.

Perhaps the most uplifting presentation came from a representative of the Lyon business school, (the Ecole Supérieure pour le Developpement Economic et Social or ESDES), which hosted the PWN event.  The ESDES representative welcomed participants to this unique site – a former prison that had been transformed into a business school with a specific mission to promote the social responsibility. Many of the panellists had already conveyed the view that women need to feel “more authorized to grown and articulate career goals” or be inspired at an early age to study the technical sciences. What this spokesperson for the school had to say was different and startlingly revealing of the French business culture.

She herself, it seems, this ESDES representative, had migrated to France from the UK, sought a career in business but moved into academia when she was told that any further advancement in the business world would require either quitting the company or moving out of France! Oh my! Well, by choosing to quit the company and stay in Lyon, she now heads the Marketing and Digital Business Faculty at the school, where she described her mission to stimulate opportunities for the younger generation of women to acquire the innovation skills for successful careers in the business world. She put it in the framework of “digital migrants versus digital natives” and asserted that young women had already acquired digital literacy in their inherent identities as part of the “networking culture”. By channelling this digital identity, she hoped to see more young women entering the fields of science and health and related sectors that are in the forefront of digital innovation. What is more, she said, companies have a lot of catching up to do to incorporate the rapidly changing array of digital tools that are being developed by this younger generation.

Overall, then, the event showed that gender equality was still a long way off, even in a country as committed to gender equality as France. One concluding observation about this PWN event. Innovation is understood to be driving the relatively new phenomena of the digital world, and I would not necessarily disagree. I can also agree that this digital innovation might actually be aggravating gender inequalities. Several speakers touched on the growing significance of artificial intelligence, for example, with a general sense of alarm that the algorithms being applied to AI are reinforcing sexist and racist biases. Women are urgently needed to be included in the development of AI both to correct this bias and to ensure that the woman’s perspective is incorporated into the articulation of interests that are at the foundation of AI. One speaker even spoke about the importance of women’s “soft skills” driving the science-ethical boundaries of digital innovation.

Gender Equality and Digital Inclusion

A slightly more optimistic view of the gender-related benefits of digital innovation was evident in the second event I attended – the 13th annual Internet Governance Forum, which was held in Paris from 12 to 14 November 2018. This IGF13 was especially invigorated by the heightened engagement of the French government as the official sponsor of this IGF. President Emmanuel Macron even used the event to strengthen his own global leadership strategy on Internet governance, but that will be the focus of another commentary.  Here, we take note of comparing the PWN event with how IGF13 addressed the gender-based challenges of digital literacy. Although the PWN event had gender equality as the central theme, while the IGF had the Internet as the central theme, both did attract my attention in large part because of the interplay between the two.

The most obvious difference is that the focus at IGF13 on gender-related concerns was on digital inclusiveness more than it was on digital literacy per se. The one does have implications for the other, of course, but the main point of difference is that this IGF focus was on how to END discrimination in policies and practices determining the access of women to the digital economy, and not on how to accommodate or take advantage of a gender-based dichotomy in skills. There were obvious similarities in the messages at the two events, of course. Both events featured discussions on what to do about male dominance in the digital world and on efforts to appeal to the benefits for women of acquiring and having access to digital skills. But the policy focus was a distinctive feature of this second event.

That is to say, one heard a lot about gender as a cross-cutting theme and about integrating gender into the planning process of public policy, as well as into the policy design and the monitoring and evaluation of any initiative. While there were specific sessions on gender, the interesting point was that gender regularly came up as this kind of integral and cross-cutting concern. One area that was cited was in the need to tackle gender biases in the algorithms in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence – just as this was mentioned at the PWN event, too. In both settings, the point was well made that these algorithms must also incorporate gender sensitivities in order to work. But the IGF event also addressed such concerns as regulatory practices or commercially-driven technological design that have an uneven gender effect. And of course, this broader world of issues involving the Internet also takes into account the far broader definition of gender to include LGBTG rights and concerns.

It was striking that the ethical concerns about the impact of digital innovations on society were specifically raised in both the PWN event and the IGF sessions. At the PWN event, the argument was made that this drawing of the ethical boundaries will benefit from a female perspective. The prescription coming out of the IGF discussions is to broaden the multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet world by bringing philosophers and anthropologists into the debate for a more multi-sectoral appreciation of these ethical boundaries. Whether it is more philosophers or more women, one can hope that both will be having an impact on advancing gender equality in the digital world.

The IGF event had participation from all around the world and not just Europe. And this included a lot of attention to gender as one of the ways in which access to the digital world is unequal – including class, income, education, location, race and ethnicity. Digital inclusiveness was a high priority in many of the IGF sessions, with proposed solutions encompassing both innovative approaches to access and skills development. One especially interesting trend is mobilizing community-driven networks to consolidate resources. And to ensure that these kinds of initiatives promote equality, the key is to ensure inclusive participation in their development.

The annual IGF has also regularly tracked participation rates, and the organizers of this Paris event were pleased to report that 43 per cent of the participants were women. That is close to a doubling of the percentage from the first IGF in 2006. So something seems to be working to mobilize gender balance in participation. It is encouraging, too, that the host/sponsor for next year’s IGF, Germany, has announced that it will seek to achieve full parity of men and women in 2019. That’s OK by me.


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