Expert advice on how to empower women through technology

Revi Sterling, director of USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, says the gender digital divide is growing. Yet women are the key to successful digital development. (Check out our interviews with Revi about data, donors, and the gender digital divide.) We asked Revi to share best practices that can be incorporated into digital development programs for women. Here’s what she said.

The best practices for any development sector—women’s digital development or otherwise—are based on an understanding of the end user in the most holistic sense possible. Technologies need to be appropriate for all the constraints that women face, be it literacy, cost, safety, security, or relevance. Moreover, the technology needs to fit a woman’s lifestyle. For example, setting up a mobile money program but having strangers as mobile money agents isn’t going to work. 

It’s important to know what a woman’s family and society will let her do or spend, or where they will allow her to go. Also, find out what her aspirations and information needs are. Only then can we start to address the gaps and create viable tech-based solutions. 

Here are some effective practices that everyone should be aware of:

Partner with the power brokers to create compelling usage scenarios

Millions of women cannot use technology due to cultural barriers and social norms that keep them offline. Therefore, you need to work closely with those in power and create compelling usage scenarios for women that include a direct benefit at the household and community level. Most digital development projects will be more successful if you engage and work with husbands, fathers, religious leaders, parents and in-laws, and employers to find agreed-upon use scenarios.

Work with users to design and test input systems

With illiterate populations and speakers of unwritten languages (languages without UNICODE support), it is critical to have voice-based and symbol-based input systems. The human-computer interaction (HCI) model is key, as is having users help design the symbols. Pre-testing is essential. Time is expressed differently in cultures, as are directions and location. There is good literature on alternative interfaces from Medhi et al and Dodson et al. Also, don’t discount interactive voice or video platforms for reach and efficacy. 

The Talking Book’s symbol-based interface was designed based on user feedback and testing with communities in north Ghana. 

Provide content by and for women 

If there is no content of interest to women, find it or create it! Otherwise, there is no user case. [Editor’s note: Also, think about format. For example, to reach low-literate audiences, Talking Book content is produced in the form of songs, dramas, interviews, and influencer endorsements. When evaluating Talking Book usage statistics for MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women project, Amplio’s affiliates found that health and agriculture messages recorded by women experts performed better with women.]

Bridge the connectivity gap with online/offline hybrids

Communities may be covered by 3G or better, but that’s no good if you can’t afford it. Smart offline/online hybrid applications can bridge the connectivity gap. Not everything needs to be delivered in real-time—especially if the data is spam or incorrect. All it takes is one bad set of information to negatively affect lives and livelihoods. People on the margins do not have a large margin for bad and costly information. Good pre-processing of information saves time, money, and legitimizes content.

Look at services for feature phones

Feature phones, like flip phones, are not going to be replaced by smartphones any time soon, no matter what the forecasts say. Stop waiting for smartphones to migrate into the hands of the poorest, including women—it’s simply unethical at this point. Thank goodness there are amazing services that are starting to look at these less sophisticated phones.

Be creative with ownership, security, and ICT options

There are different ways to get technology into people’s hands without incurring too much cost or risk of theft. For example, algorithms tie a user’s voice to mobile usage, and biometric markers (voice, fingerprint) help keep technology with its rightful owner. Cost remains a huge factor for women, so be creative with rent-to-own or group ownership models for phones. Look at non-phone based ICTs like Talking Books. Explore newer, cheaper operating systems like KaiOS. Data costs remain out of reach for many women, which opens up the need for Community Network providers who can undercut the big telecoms.

Use technology to put women in leadership roles

Why shouldn’t every community network be run by women? WomenConnect has projects in four African countries where women have learned the essentials of networking and have brought the internet to their communities. The women manage the network, fix the network, and serve as role models for everyone else. In each of these communities, the men are so happy to have internet access and enjoy the subsequent benefits that they accept women running the show.

Set clear expectations for safety and digital development success 

Create training material! I think of Viamo’s 3-2-1 service that teaches people about the internet, email, search queries, social networks, as well as how to stay safe and avoid scams or harassment. Many women lack confidence to try a new app or they are afraid something bad will happen. These apprehensions are real. In the curriculum I’ve written on ICT fundamentals, I stress that having the internet doesn’t mean you’ll get rich. More likely, you’ll fall victim to a get-rich-quick scheme, which I see with so many novice and aspirational users. We need to be very clear about what “digital” promisesand encourage safe and sound use.

Revi Sterling, PhD, directs USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge. A leader in technology and gender, Revi consults widely on using technology to empower women and marginalized populations. 

Connect with Revi Sterling on LinkedIn.

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