A Q&A with Revi Sterling, Director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge

Revi Sterling, director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, says the gender digital divide is growing. Yet women are the key to sustainable development. In October, she spoke at an Amplio event about empowering women through digital technology. Her talk inspired a lot of questions from donors and development practitioners. This Q&A is the first of a two-part interview. Check out part two here. 

Women + Tech as a Great Force Multiplier 

Amplio:  According to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of digital development projects fail. What is happening? 

Revi Sterling:  The research points the blame squarely at not addressing what Richard Heeks calls the “design-reality gap”—we are not creating tech that is well-designed for its intended users. For me it comes down to the fact that we’re not looking at women’s development needs. When we talk about the most vulnerable people in the world, women are the largest chunk of that population. Women are the ones who have the least agency to do things in their community, and the least access to information. They have the highest numbers of illiteracy and the lowest numbers of land rights. 

And yet we have 60 years of qualitative and quantitative data to say that women are absolutely the key to sustainable development. You would think that women plus technology would be this great force multiplier and we would have hit all the UN Sustainable Development Goals by now. But so many digital development programs are too tech-centric, which is my big complaint.

I come from the tech industry, so I can say that with some authority and damnation.

When I was working on my own hardware platform that wasn’t a Talking Book—and it’s probably a good thing that it failed—people kept saying, “Just make it a cell phone.” I’m sure Amplio has also heard this a few times. Well, let me tell you, every woman in the world who is able to own a mobile phone, has one. But one billion women don’t. Moreover, the persistent gender digital divide is reinforcing, and even exacerbating, existing socioeconomic gaps between men and women.

The Problem With Mobile Phones

Amplio:  What is stopping one-billion-plus women from using cell phones? 

Revi Sterling:  I have worked on so many projects where women risk violence, jail, even death when they use technology. They would get spam messages or a hang up call, and their family or husband would look through the phone at the end of the day and ask, “What is this?” The woman would say, “I don’t know.” And they would say, “Well, it’s not a known number. Ergo, it could be from a man. Ergo, you must be having an affair.”

This is the kind of thing that happens all over the world—there are whole swaths of the community who want to keep women offline and controlled. That’s where the opportunity for change is.

The mobile phone issue isn’t just that women don’t have phones that they can take a Snapchat picture with. It’s the fact that this gets to be a very deadly situation in development. That’s not the norm in a lot of communities, but more so, what I’m seeing is a backlash against technology as the world becomes a little more populous, a little scarier. There is a widespread fear of women being harassed online, so we hear ‘let’s just not let them on.’ ​

When you batten down the hatches, you have more restrictive social norms, more restrictive cultural barriers, especially when things feel out of control. And this is a pretty out of control time—from climate change to mass migration.

Revi’s “doom and gloom” slide shows how cell phones can contribute the gender divide.

The Gender Digital Divide in Education

Amplio: What should schools and education systems be doing to address the gender digital divide?  

Revi:  In the U.S., most education systems seem to understand how to address the gender digital divide. However, it’s a matter of working with under-resourced schools and school boards that are not future-forward. In the rest of the world, socio-economic and geographic realities dictate if and where ICT and STEM-type education is available, and whether girls have access. What do you do with rural schools if teachers are entirely absent, or in communities where education isn’t available to girls?

There are bigger issues that we have to address around education. Some can be addressed through technology, but the failures in tech-based education make districts wary. Most efforts have been unsustainable. Priorities change with elections. Schools that don’t even have desks or latrines are hardly suitable for tech infrastructure, which requires climate control, electricity, and security.

I hold more hope for informal educational opportunities—such as health and agriculture digital development programs with an educational component, mobile training centers, offline content, and other offerings that demonstrate more promise for reaching more students, especially women and girls.

Revi Sterling directs USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge. A technology and gender expert, Revi has a Ph.D. in Media, Technology, and Society from University of Colorado Boulder, where she also founded the nation’s first Information and Communication Technology for Development master’s program. She consults widely on using tech to empower women and girls.

See also:

Q&A Navigating Data, Donors, and the Gender Digital Divide

Why Not Mobile Phones? How Talking Books Bridge the Gender Gap

Amplio Network