I know I’m blessed and lucky to have been born in the United States. Our country, though far from perfect, offers so many wonderful opportunities for women. I’ve certainly benefitted from these freedoms: I attended public schools through high school; had thousands of colleges and universities to consider for my higher education and was able to move into a new career as my interests evolved. And I’m indebted to the women who preceded me who fought for the vote and for equal rights in the workplace. As a woman with a family and a full time career in the high tech industry, I have a front row seat to the changes the Internet has brought in our lives. I can order groceries from a website and have them delivered to my home. I can search for a new job online. The economic impact of having the Internet at home, on my mobile devices and at work is significant. I can be more productive using my computer to work; I have a wider network of colleagues using social, alumni and professional networks; I’m able to be a smarter consumer by researching purchases and investment opportunities; and potentially I can learn to be a better parent, simply by accessing the wealth of information available online.
How women are impacted in bad economic times?
The current economic woes have hit women and girls harder than men. According to a study released during the Davos economic conference, during the last five years, female infant mortality has gone up five times that of boys. The World Bank research shows that for every 1% loss in economic output, infant deaths go up 7.4 deaths of girl babies (per 1,000 births) as compared to 1.5 boy baby deaths (per 1,000). What is the connection? When families are uncertain about their economic future, they prefer sons whom they see as their future workers and wage earners. The economically-weakened take their girls out of school, to cover work at home while their mothers seek extra work or to work as child labor. Girls are vulnerable when they aren’t educated. They remain at home, get married off young, or experience fewer work options because they lack experience or skills. They are forever constrained by an economic setback that may have been many years earlier.
Increasing the number of women online is a potential global economic game changer
In communities where girls have access to the Internet, doors once closed will open. We have a ways to go; Internet access is not widely available in the developing world, but all signs point to the inevitability and the economic benefit of pressuring governments and communities to embrace getting online. A new report from Intel and World Pulse describes both the current sad state of Internet access for women around the world and an exciting proposed initiative to address it. We know getting women Internet access is a game changer. “The Internet has opened the sky for us,” said a Nigerian health and community worker in a recent Huffington Post article. When women get online, they gain access to so much beyond the limits of their immediate community: education programs ranging from basic literacy to advanced degree programs; health and women’s reproductive information; parenting techniques and, most importantly, job and career information.
The non-profit organization IkeepSafe once had an initiative in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to teach female community leaders Internet safety for their families. The innovative approach was to bring women from rural communities to nearby city centers where they would learn basic computer and Internet skills in order to return to their villages and teach the other community women. In this way, women in traditional Muslim villages who lacked educational, travel and work opportunities could gain crucial skills for guiding their children in the appropriate use of Internet access. I admired the innovative approach: both to “teach the teacher” and to give these women a culturally appropriate introduction to high technology. Sadly with the current political upheaval in Egypt, this initiative is on hold, but it demonstrates the creative possibilities to cultivating technical skills among women of every economic situation.
Cyber safety is a natural women’s issue
With the anticipated increase in these new Internet users, Internet safety education must be a key component. We know that the more time you spend online, the more varied the sites you visit, the more at risk you are for online victimization. Everyone (male or female) is at risk for malware and other cybercrimes. And whether the concern is online scams or online fraud, we also need to educate the new user about how to control or limit exposure to content that is violent, pornographic, upsetting or culturally-inappropriate. Women, as the backbone of the family unit, are in a terrific position to help guide their children in on-boarding to proper and safe computer use and Internet access. Too often, even in the developed world, mothers fret they lack the same ease on the computer as their children. So they don’t get involved in setting limits or teaching their children the principles of Internet safety. Here, as we promote new users and new access, we can right that wrong in the developing world. Potentially, setting women’s computing knowledge as a priority can ensure a safer future generation of Internet users.
As we gather in a global community to recognize and celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we can continue this discussion of how we will push for more Internet access for our sisters in the developing world. The economic connection is there. The Intel study proposes bringing government, technology companies and women together to expand women’s Internet access around the world. The study reports this could lead to economic opportunities of $50 to $70 billion. The young girl who has Internet access, either in her home or in a community center, will have more options for her economic future. This will enable whole families to better weather future economic downturns. Innovations such as online college courses in the MOOC (massive open online courses) now widely available can ensure more than basic literacy for those with the drive to better their place through education. Whether women in these currently underserved communities use their new Internet access to learn new job skills, to reach for advanced degrees or simply to become a better citizen of her community, we know that increasing Internet access for our global sisters must be a concept we all work to promote, for the benefit of all.