I am very proud to introduce the Gender and Mobiles newsletter! This bi-monthly newsletter will serve as a space to learn more about the ways that gender, mobiles and mobile learning intertwine, in addition to highlighting existing and emerging work in the field. We have had interest from around the world, so please continue to share this free aggregation of news, research, blogs and events. If interested in making a contribution to the newsletter, please feel free to be in touch. To subscribe to the newsletter, please enter your details below.
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For February I am sharing a guest post on the blog written by Sarah Johns, an academic colleague I know from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah works for Plan International and is presently completing the MSc in Practising Sustainable Development with ICT4D specialism, the course I completed prior to beginning my PhD work. It was at Royal Holloway that Sarah and I had an engaging conversation about gender and mobile learning, and our conversation inspired Sarah’s post. With her permission, I am reposting the text of the blog here.

Girl geeks and boys’ toys: The digital gender divide

Sarah Johns

By Sarah Johns, Plan International Publishing Coordinator
(originally posted on 30 January 2013 on the Plan International website)

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Plan’s Chief Executive Officer, Nigel Chapman, chaired a discussion on the ‘digital gender divide’. If you’re not sure what the digital gender divide is, imagine a world where your office IT guy is an IT girl, or where the first person to offer you help with your Powerpoint presentation is a woman. How likely is this in your office, your city, your country?

It’s a worldwide problem. For example in the UK, the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector accounts for a whopping 9% of the country’s economy – £81 billion – but just 17% of the people benefiting from employment in this sector are women. Ironically, 17% also happens to be the percentage of women participants at the WEF this year.

Economic opportunities
In low and middle income countries, the ICT sector is widely seen as a catalyst for creating economic opportunities for individuals, communities and states.

Ten years ago the debate was all about the digital divide – a canyon between rich and poor, urban and rural. Recently though, countries like India, Vietnam and Indonesia have seen economic growth partly because their governments have encouraged investment in digital communications and technology, and other countries, such as Kenya, Liberia and Ghana, are watching closely.

Barriers for women

There’s no doubt that there has been a growth in jobs and business opportunities in the ICT sector for those able to benefit from the opportunities, but it’s the same old story for girls and women.

Technology is seen as a man’s domain. Shiny new toys and gadgets are aimed at guys. The majority of people working in the technology industry are men. Even the language is gendered: geek, boys’ toys, scientist and engineer. Whether it’s learning ICT skills, or using computers, girls and women face all the usual cultural, social and economic barriers that come with being female. This is the digital gender divide.

“Girls are burdened with chores which do not provide them with adequate time to learn, access the computer and have time for leisure and play which are all very important for her development” – Abigail, 16 years, Ghana

Chance for change
There are two shining lights on this particular horizon though. The first is the mobile (cell) phone. The ability to have relatively cheap, personal, portable access to digital information and communication is not as revolutionary as some say, but it’s a technological evolution that has great potential to benefit girls and women.

If computers are male, telephones are female, traditionally used for family gossip and chatting with friends or listening to the radio. Women, on the whole, are already in control of this technology, which makes it a hugely powerful tool for change.

In many countries, girls are already using and innovating with mobile phones. In Kenya, the cost of owning a mobile phone dropped by two-thirds in just 3 years (US$10 in 2009 to US$3 in 2011) and this trend is continuing.

Schoolgirls in Nairobi use mobiles to catch up on classes and collaborate on homework. Groups like AkiraChix in Kenya, Women in Technology Uganda and Asikana in Zambia are teaching girls how to create mobile phone applications, particularly using the Android platform where development costs are low.

Women such as Juliana Rotich from Ushadidi and Sheryl Sanderberg from Facebook are also providing crucial role models for girls wanting a science or technology career path. And the future looks good: Asikana has mapped over 20 women’s technology organisations in Africa already, and more are in the pipeline.

What is Plan doing?

The second light on the horizon is us: Plan. We’ve got years of experience of working with girls and women in communities, and we’re increasing our expertise and our voice in this area through initiatives such as Because I am a Girl.

We’ve also got a growing amount of programmes that are integrating technology within more traditional programmes in education, health and disaster response.

I’ll leave the last word with Asri, from Indonesia, who took part in the Because I am a Girl Fast Talk Initiative on ICT and girls in 2011:

“I want to change the paradigm which says that girls aren’t used to technology like computer engineering…Girls with tools are okay and technology isn’t built for boys only. I want the girls to know that they are able to be computer engineers too.”

Photo Credit: GSMA mWomen Programme

Last month, Wayan Vota of ICT Works shared a thought-provoking blog post that struck a chord with me. He questioned the necessity of the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge given that an effective and simple approach to teaching women literacy with basic handsets had already been devised by the Jokko Initiative.

Wayan extolled the virtues of the the Jokko Initiative, and rightly so: This program for helping women in West Africa build awareness of their right to communicate along with their literacy skills is also my favorite mobile learning project. Tostan has a model that yielded funding-worthy results and I believe would be useful to scale.

However, to compare the Jokko Initiative to the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge is pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches: GSMA’s mWomen Design Challenge seeks to improve usability of Android Ice Cream Sandwich-powered smartphones since “…the Android operating system offers several important advantages as a potential mobile operating platform for women in emerging markets. As of June 2012, Android represented 47% of developers’ primary platform 10 in Africa, as compared to mobile web (13%) and Apple’s iOS (13%),” (GSMA mWomen, 2012).

Additionally, statistics elsewhere project that increasingly affordable Android handsets will continue to spread in developing markets in Africa and Asia through 2015, and while there is no way to tell how many of these smartphone adoptees will be women, it can be presupposed that some of them will be. Learning how to use these phones is one step on the way to helping women harness the potential benefits of mobiles, including for educational purposes. Why not start looking forward for mobile designs that will benefit women who are smartphone users, since many signs suggest that there is a growing trend in ownership for this group?

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches creates a false dichotomy that unnecessarily detracts from the push to help ensure that more women benefit from mobile phone uses for education and communication.
Women can benefit from the Tostan approach, but they may also benefit from mobile phone designs that are gender-sensitive since it could lead to women imagining even more novel educational uses.

In the dissertation for my Master’s program in ICT4D, I wrote the following about gender and social shaping of technology: “Wajcman (1991) contends that not only is technology shaped by users’ social contexts, but that gender is also a component of the social influence that people have on technology. For example, Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) tell how gendering of domestic technologies such as microwaves is an on-going process that does not end at the point of design or manufacturing. When piloting microwave design, engineers in Japan had to respond to women’s use of microwaves to thaw sushi, helping to create the defrost function (Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993). Users play a role in encoding their own gendered meanings on the technology as they appropriate it, and the example provided explains how this encoding can be in response to the users’ needs,” (Zelezny-Green, 2012).

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches is an exercise in futility.The real question is who will be behind the winning design of the challenge? I take the position that if mobile technology is to be made easier for women to use, then it should be designed by or with women. Otherwise, the goal of making mobiles for women may not be met –- unarguably the greater missed opportunity as far as mangos and ice cream sandwiches are concerned.

Sources cited:

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cockburn, C., & Ormrod, S. (1993). Gender and Technology in the Making. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

*Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I work for GSMA on the mEducation project. However, the views expressed here are wholly my own and are in no way meant to be representative of the views of the GSMA mWomen programme or their design challenge, or the GSMA mEducation project.

Welcome to my blog!!! When thinking about the themes this blog should consider, I decided to combine my interest in reflecting on the triumphs, debates, and follies of ICT4D with my passion for all aspects of the increasingly important and emerging area of gender, learning and mobiles (what I will hereafter refer to by the acronym of “G.L.a.M.”).

I know there are a number of voices out there already talking about the first of these two themes, but where I hope to be different is by considering the gendered dimensions and implications of ICT4D since so often this component of an intervention is merely a box to be checked on the way to having a project completed. The importance of gender and ICT4D has been written about since at least the 1970s, yet we still see that discussions about gender in ICT4D are often essentialized to how many women and girls have taken part in an intervention.

For the second theme, G.L.a.M. is an idea that I have been passionate about since taking a course titled “Technology in Education” in my Master’s program in Applied Linguistics. It was during this course that I first became aware of mobile learning, and I was stunned I had never thought of this possible use of technology before! This course made me think back to my time spent in Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar, where resources in schools were short but mobile phones were increasingly ubiquitous, even among people of the female gender. Yet use of mobiles as a learning tool cannot be imagined in a vacuum; indeed, like all technology, mobiles also have gendered dimensions and implications of use. So what relationships might gender, learning, and mobiles have with each other? This is an area this blog hopes to contribute the most to.

The idea to explore G.L.a.M. in-depth solidified for me after attending the 2012 eLearning Africa conference in Benin. During a session chaired by Shafika Isaacs (an eLearning extraordinaire!) on the various stakeholder views on mobile learning, a topic of discussion that arose was the need to speak more about the gendered dimensions and implications of use of mobile phones in learning contexts: An attendee mentioned how in all the excitement for gender and mobile learning, no one seemed to be talking about things like an incident in South Africa where mobile phones were used by boys (many of whom were students) to film the gang rape of a school girl. There are also the stories of school girls obtaining mobile phones through “sugar daddies,” where payments for the purchase of the phones often have dubious origins. At times, G.L.a.M. may touch on subjects that are uncomfortable yet absolutely necessary to talk about if some of the more grandiose visions in this field are to be realized. However, gendered discussions of technology do not all have to be “doom and gloom”, and in this blog I will strive to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of two very complex, intertwining topics.

This blog will discuss G.L.a.M. initiatives around the world, and special attention will be given to my own PhD research in this area. This work is constantly evolving but at the moment the conceptual framework will focus on learner-initiated (and teacher-supported) mobile-based communities of practice and gender, technology, and equity with the specific lens of groups of secondary school girls in Kenya. More on how this topic came to be of interest to me, and the need for research in this area, will be explored in future blog postings.

For now, I reiterate my warm welcome and hope that you will enjoy taking this blog journey with me. If so inclined, please follow me on Twitter @GLaM_mobileLeo, where I most frequently share ICT4D news.