Want sustainable peace and social justice? Get more women in the majority world involved in tech

It will take around 100 years for the world to reach gender parity according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, recently published by the World Economic Forum.

All evidence indicates that climate change, inequality and rising conflict are directly related. This link manifests itself in increased poverty and food insecurity through a rising number of droughts and water-related problems.

Water and ICT (information and communications technology) seemed to me to be worlds apart until 2017 when I discovered first-hand the ways in which technology can be used to mediate long-standing water disputes. Working with facilitators for dispute resolution in rural Pakistan, I saw that they usually had no data on what worked and what did not work in resolving conflicts in the area. Technology helped us to bring women and men to the table and learn from their stories to help provide equitable solutions for all in the community.

That intervention led to the establishment of Women4PeaceTech, a platform that aims to empower women through technology-based trainings for economic empowerment, gender equality and sustainable peace. While I was researching models for a technology platform aimed at serving women in this way, I came across very few similar organisations or platforms – especially in developing countries. This situation reflects the existing absence of women in tech generally.

According to 2017 data from the International Telecommunication Union (the United Nations specialised agency for ICT), the proportion of women using the internet globally is 12 per cent lower than the proportion of men. In least developed countries, only five per cent of women have access to the internet, compared to only seven per cent of men. And at the other end of the scale, only 56 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups have at least one woman in an executive position, while only 40 per cent have at least one woman on the board of directors.

All over the world, at all levels of society, while the number of technology-based jobs is ever-increasing, the number of women creating and using technology is going in the opposite direction.

In developing countries like Pakistan where gender inequality is already pronounced, the number of women in tech remains very small. Although the Pakistan government has put together a number of programmes to redress this imbalance, the reach and access of this work is still very limited – and even then, these programmes are only available in urban areas.

Yet the potential impact of women in tech is tremendous. All evidence suggests that the economic empowerment of women leads to more peaceful societies. In many developing countries, where the mobility of women can be restricted due to the impacts of gender inequality, working with mobile technologies and online platforms can provide women with a vital source of income from the safety of their homes.

Research conducted in 31 countries by the global consulting firm Accenture found that when men and women have the same level of digital fluency – defined as the extent to which they embrace and use digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective – women are better at using those digital skills to gain further education and to find work.

When women get the opportunity to change their perspectives and access new avenues through ICTs, their economic empowerment reverberates widely and deeply, particularly in informal settings. For example, in Rwanda, some 3,500 women farmers are now using mobile technology to know the exact size of their land, to better forecast production and to access markets as well as finance. This has helped to close the gender gap in local agricultural production. And in Afghanistan, the Code to Inspire initiative is the country’s first coding school for women and girls. Working all over this deeply conservative country, young women are empowered to learn how to code, find programming jobs and launch technology ventures.

However, to improve gender equality in tech and entrepreneurship, we need to plan and design for it.

The fact that men continue to use digital technologies more frequently than women and are more proactive in learning new digital skills can be partly attributed to the ways in which our education systems are designed to discourage women from STEM as well as the fundamental challenges to education at any level that too many girls and women still face. Women must be encouraged to improve their digital skill set, through training and lifelong education, as well as primary and secondary education.

Programmes that are designed to attract start-ups must specifically target the inclusion of women. Tech initiatives should aim to create more spaces for women to develop their digital skills, especially for economic empowerment. This will allow them to identify their own potential and learn about available opportunities.

In developing countries especially, governments should take a lead in creating digital training platforms that reach all women and girls – rural-based as well as urban. This should be complemented by gender-inclusive ICT policies at the government level to ensure women and girls affordable access to digital technologies.

Female-led start-ups should be encouraged and financed as a priority. Women mentors in the digital world must be made visible and accessible to women learning digital skills. Local initiatives can play a very important role in the digital training of women. Local campaigns to create awareness of and interest in digital literacy opportunities can go a long way in empowering women. Fundamentally, having more women in tech brings the feminist perspective to programmes and policies, and will lead to the economic stability and inclusive development essential for positive peace.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on IPS News.