Delivering on digital diversity
Rural women are at risk of being left behind, but technology firms and governments working together can help them succeed.
I recently had the privilege of serving as part of the official Australian Government delegation at the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The commission had the ambitious charge of reaching consensus on ways to use technology to enhance economic opportunity, education, personal safety and other important quality-of-life considerations for rural women and girls.
While technology cannot solve all of society’s problems, that the UN (and the Australian Government) acknowledges that it is the common denominator in mitigating many of the challenges shows just how far our industry has progressed. As a result, we now have an amazing opportunity to progress gender equality at home and abroad. There is no force better equipped than technology to make meaningful impacts in these areas.
One of the commission’s main conclusions (Word document online) was the importance of investing in infrastructure that expands information and communications technology in rural areas. While two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants have a mobile phone (according to 2018 research released by We Are Social and Hootsuite), those percentages vary greatly by region. In many areas, even those who have mobile phones struggle with connectivity. I live in rural Australia, and I only have to stroll a few hundred metres down the road before the mobile signal abandons me.
Technology can also democratise educational access to better position women to benefit from the opportunities in the digital economy. In many areas of the world, technology-driven activities, such as the ability to take an online course or watch a training video, are not feasible for women and girls. This level of isolation widens the gulf of opportunity as digital transformation reshapes the global economy at a staggering pace.
When it comes to expanding economic opportunity for rural women and girls, the technology workforce itself needs to be part of the solution. Fields such as cybersecurity and governance of information and technology are in urgent need of more qualified professionals, largely because of a shortage of women in those professions.
This under-representation is a systemic problem that will require the activation of global coalitions, one of the pillars of the SheLeadsTech program. I’ve never been more optimistic about the appetite to forge these coalitions based on the dialogue that took place throughout the session in New York.
These collaborations should also take place at the enterprise level, with organisations and professional associations sharing best practices of how to encourage more women to join and remain part of the technology workforce. ISACA’s recently released State of Cybersecurity 2018 research underscores how influential proactive enterprise attention can be.
Among survey respondents from enterprises that do not have diversity programs specifically supporting gender equality, only 36% of women believe that they are offered the same career opportunities as men, compared to 73% of male respondents (a 37-point gap).
Yet among respondents from enterprises that do have diversity programs, that gap was only 10 points, with 77% of women believing they have the same opportunities for career advancement as their male colleagues.
Too many generations of women have been denied the same basic opportunities as men, and this inequity is especially pronounced in rural areas that have not kept pace with the technology-driven advancements that are increasingly essential to achieve prosperity.
The conclusions outlined by the commission provide strong guidance for governments, civil society, advocacy groups and enterprises alike to take meaningful steps forward in the near future.
It is up to all of us to recognise the urgency of the moment and ensure we are not leaving rural women and girls behind as technology propels society forward.
There are no overnight fixes, but I urge all Australian technology companies to encourage and support the Australian Government as it implements the agreed UN conclusions and expands technology infrastructure to empower women in our country and abroad. Please download those conclusions and let me know (@jo_sr01) how you will help empower gender equality in Australia.
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