Throughout my life, I’ve heard women grumble about using technology—from my mom, from friends in school, and from work colleagues—yet these are highly educated, often extremely logical thinkers that excel at, well, Excel!
The irony of the situation has been troubling me in the past few months. Why? Because there is a clear contrast in attention paid to the benefits of empowering women and girls through technology in low-and middle-income countries, with the attention paid to empowering women and girls through technology in high-income environments.
As an international development community, we spend a lot of resources promoting the use of technology among women and girls within the communities where we work—with good results. And yet, as a community of women development practitioners, we are failing at embracing technology ourselves. The gender gap in science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) exists around the world, and society continues to fail women and girls by not expecting them to know much about technical matters. This plays out in our day-to-day work in the monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning (MERL) sector. Whether it’s learning new software to improve our results monitoring or using new mobile tools in the field, there seems to be a hesitance, and lack of confidence, often accompanied by a self-deprecation that our male counterparts lack.
What is holding back women from embracing technology in our own work, even as we tout it for others in the field? These questions motivated me to take the topic to a broader audience at the recent MERLTech Conference in Washington, D.C.
Panelists discuss their own experiences as women working in the tech space. From left to right Dr. Patty Mecheal (Co-founder and Policy Lead, HealthEnabled), Carmen Tedesco (author), Jaclyn Carlsen (Policy Advisor, Development Informatics team, USAID), Priyanka Pathak (Principal, Samaj Studio).
But first, a bit of history.
How Did We Get Here?
In her article from the Center for Media Literacy, Margaret Brenston explains: “In our society, boys and men are expected to learn about machines, tools and how things work. In addition, they absorb, ideally, a ‘technological world view’ that grew up along with industrial society. Such a world view emphasizes objectivity, rationality, control over nature, and distance from human emotions. Conversely, girls and women are not expected to know much about technical matters. Instead, they are to be good at interpersonal relationships and to focus on people and emotion.”
She goes on to outline how those differences play out when technology is seen as a language, and one in which women “are silenced.” She writes: “It is very difficult for women to discuss technical problems, particularly experimental ones, with male peers—they either condescend or they want to perform whatever task is at issue themselves. In either case, asking a question or raising a problem in discussion is proof (if any is needed) that women don’t know what they are doing. Male students, needless to say, do not get this treatment.” An interesting literature review of gender differences in technology usage highlights a 2003 study that details how women are more anxious than men with IT utilization, which reduces their self-effectiveness and increases the perception that IT requires more effort.
I organized a panel at MERLTech, where we discussed our experiences as women in tech working in monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL), some of the data behind the gender gap in STEM, and why women struggle to embrace technology.
So many conference attendees echoed the above findings, mentioning that tech savvy is seen as smart, but smart is not seen as feminine. There is a misconception about what technology is by women. The “imposter syndrome” or a fear of failure, has a real impact on women in our lives, and the reaction by men to women’s discomfort with tech is often compounded by mocking or dismissal, making many women even more hesitant to engage.
How Can We Fix This?
The Global Fund for Women states, “Access to technology, control of it, and the ability to create and shape it, is a fundamental issue of women’s human rights.” The Fund does this by, “help[ing] end the gender technology gap and empower[ing] women and girls to create innovative solutions to advance equality in their communities.”
Based on our discussion, here are five tips to help bridge the technology gender divide within our own field.
- Be, or find, a mentor. Women will benefit from mentors and allies in this space, whether you plan to go into a tech field, or just want to ask a question without fear of looking uninformed.
- Become a role model where you can. Find allies, men and women to help you build confidence.
- Increase representation. When women can be brought to the table in discussions of tech, they should be. Slowly, this will permeate the culture of the organization. Having more women involved in the process of explaining and building tech in our companies will normalize the use of tech and take away some of the gendered dynamics that exist now.
- Confront bias head-on. Addressing gender assumptions when they occur can be hard but pointing out the bias is not enough. Countering the action with a specific recommendation for course correction works best.
- Build confidence. Personal development can play a role in building confidence, as can much of the point listed above. Confidence is the foundation for competence.
Both men and women should be aware of the history and social context behind women’s hesitation in the technology space. It is in all our best interests to be aware of this bias and find ways to help correct it. In taking some of these small steps, we can pave the way for increased confidence in the tech space for women.