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This ITU-UN Women Open Forum panel discussion focused on the global gender digital divide and highlighted EQUALS: The Global Partnerships for Gender Equality in the Digital Age (EQUALS), a new initiative aiming to create ‘an unstoppable global movement where women and girls are equal participants in the digital technology revolution’.
After a brief introduction to the topic by moderator Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of ITU’s Strategic Planning and Membership Department, Lara Blanco, UN Women Deputy Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, raised the question of how to collaborate to close the gender digital divide. ICTs can be ‘tremendously powerful’ in achieving gender equality, yet women and girls are shockingly under-represented in science and technology sectors worldwide. Highlighting examples from UN Women’s work, she presented four objectives to move forward:
- closing the disconnect between technology and gender equality communities;
- finding innovative solutions for funding and investment;
- intermediating trust among partners from different sectors; and
- realising action and impact at local levels.
Although there are many initiatives working on closing the gender divide, these are largely fragmented and need to be up-scaled and expanded through partnerships like EQUALS.
Bogdan-Martin confirmed that the fragmentation and limited scope of current initiatives was a motivation to move forward with EQUALS: to bring parties together and ‘move the needle’. She explained that EQUALS would conduct its work in three main areas: access, skills, and leadership.
On the topic of access, Claire Subthorpe, Head of Connected Women at GSMA, outlined the key issues that should be tackled to achieve equal access:
- better, evidence-based data;
- the holistic integration of gender into strategies, policies, and plans
- addressing specific barriers to access such as accessibility, affordability, and skills
- sharing of good practices and lessons learned
- the creation of action-oriented measures
Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, added two examples of what the Web Foundation is doing to improve access for women and girls, and stressed the importance of working with women directly to amplify their voices in policy circles.
Addressing the topic of skills, Paul Mitchell, General Manager of Technology Policy at Microsoft, presented Microsoft’s initiatives in this area in its employment of women, in reinforcing the value of women and their insights, and in the establishment of projects that promote STEM education and coding among girls from a very young age. He also mentioned the importance of highlighting successful, skilled women in the tech community.
On the topic of leadership, Yolanda Martinez Mancila, Chief of the Digital Government Unit of Mexico, explained how the Mexican government is leading by example by putting women in leadership positions at the digital strategy coordination office. She furthermore presented several ways in which the Mexican government addresses gender equality and empowers women through its e-government applications.
Moving from challenges to opportunities, Cecile Barayre, Program Manager at the ICT Analysis Section of UNCTAD, explained how ICTs provide tools for women to be better integrated into economies, create businesses, and connect to clients from all over the world. As a consequence, ‘serving local or global markets is no longer a utopia for women’. She also mentioned several projects established by UNCTAD to mitigate the challenges and harness the potential of ICTs for women entrepreneurs.
Jac sm Kee, Women’s Rights Advocacy Coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications, talked about the work of the Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Gender and Access, which has assessed the barriers to women’s access to technology, as well as 60 existing initiatives that have been set up to meet these barriers. She identified an important gap that has so far not been addressed extensively: the role of culture and norms as barriers. Furthermore, the research of the BPF highlighted that besides the ‘traditional’ barriers to access, the role of gender based violence and abuse is mentioned as a reason for women not to go online.
Kee was hopeful that the collaboration through EQUALS can scale up gender equality in ICTs, and Bogdan-Martin emphasised that ‘by bringing our work all together, our impact can be huge’.
by Barbara Rosen Jacobson