Revi Sterling, director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, says the gender digital divide is growing. Yet women are the key to sustainable development. This Q&A is the second of a three-part interview about empowering women through technology. Check out the first part here.

Navigating the capricious winds of donor interest

You’ve worked on gender digital divide through several administrations and have seen the issue wax and wane. Do you have any advice on how to navigate the capricious winds of donor interest?

Tech and government both have short attention spans. Industry thinks on the quarter; government has to focus on so many emerging issues. This can make it very challenging to work on evergreen issues like gender. In 2004, I answered this exact question in a Newsweek article about the lack of women’s participation in the tech sector. So patience is key.

Gender is a hot topic that comes around every few years, usually spurred by some cultural crises—#MeToo movement being one of the latest—or through some large funding initiative. You have to strike while the iron is hot and get funders to commit to multi-year initiatives that can bridge the times of drought. Also, it helps to always be able to make a set of arguments, backed up with the timeliest data, that will appeal to funders and policymakers, be it an economic, equity, or emotional argument.

Revi Sterling discusses the gender digital divide, field realities, and how to empower women through dignified design.

Funding must be tied to data

How is the global development community doing in terms of measuring the gender digital divide? What do we still need to know? What do we still need to show? 

Data is key—we can’t analyze what we don’t measure. There are some great data and gender efforts such as Data2X, Equal Measures, and different high-tech initiatives, but there are few common definitions. In development alone, we have many women’s empowerment indices, all with very different definitions of empowerment. Also, while there are efforts to monitor and evaluate gender and ICT data, mostly through the ITU, this requires that countries actually track this information.

Funding must be tied to getting good data, but this is not a common practice. It needs to happen at the policy level and have the weight of funders and industry behind it. Usually, the reports that get cited for gender digital divide data are so lightweight compared to what they could be. They look at 1,000 people in 14 countries or make grand extrapolations without getting adequate cross-sections of the population—and we know that people are not always honest self-reporters. We need both a technical and traditional approach to data collection.

Even when women do own mobile phones, low literacy skills and lack of internet can be barriers to information.

Why data isn’t always the answer

So is the data the golden goose?

Sadly, data is often dismissed. I have had very rigorous data sets thrown out of discussions, because the outputs weren’t what people thought was accurate. When I’ve reported on women’s phone ownership and use data, I have been told by senior leadership across every sector that I’ve work in that my “bad news” simply can’t be correct. I have been told there is no gender digital divide in countries with some of the worst gender equity statistics.

As development practitioners, we are completely brainwashed into thinking that every poor woman has a smartphone and a data plan, because it makes our lives easier to create digital solutions. Even good data cannot change the mind of people who are sold on a certain narrative. Unfortunately, there are a lot of narratives that claim to be good research. 

Learn more about gender digital divide

What are some resources for people who want to learn more? 

To get familiar with the gender digital divide, read EQUALS Research Group’s Taking Stock report, GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, and ITU’s Broadband Commission’s Working Group on the Digital Gender Divide progress reportI don’t necessarily agree with all the methods and the findings, but they are worth a read and are the most often quoted. 

Also, it’s useful to check out books and articles by Hafkins, Huyer, Buskens, Webb, Gillwald, Primo, and others who discussed the underlying causes of the gender digital divide before it was on the radar of most tech or development professionals. The issues are the same today.

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

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