Technology has become a powerful force for transforming economic life, but it is also having an increasingly powerful impact on social and political conditions around the world. In particular, the Internet has expanded dramatically the reach of nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian activists. Not only are these groups better able to mobilize the masses, but the Internet’s instantaneous nature also enables them to more effectively exert pressure and influence decision making at all levels.
In particular, groups of women in different parts of the world are beginning to voice their concerns and expand their influence on critical issues within governments and decision-making bodies that traditionally have not incorporated their perspectives. This is critical to our efforts to combat poverty and hunger and promote sustainable development, conflict prevention and recovery.
While on the one hand it is important to work within political structures in order to elect more women to parliaments and to ensure that they are more present in decision-making bodies, new technologies provide an alternate means by which women can network more effectively and be active participants in the social, political and economic fabric of their societies.
Though the possibilities are enormous, the technology gender gap remains wide. Around the world, the number of women making use of the Internet is relatively small. Only 22 percent of all users in Asia are women; the number in Latin America is about 38 percent. And in the Middle East, only 6 percent of users are women. My region has both the lowest rate of Internet access for women and the fewest women involved in economic and political life. The challenge and opportunity in the Middle East, then, is to utilize these technologies to accelerate the pace of development. But public and private institutions must have the political will to make the technology available and to properly train women to use it.
Throughout the world, most women using information technology have minimal training. They lack the skills necessary to become future IT leaders, programmers, software designers and entrepreneurs, and instead are often relegated to low-level jobs, doing little more than data entry. Even in the United States, female representation in mid- to upper-level IT jobs is still quite low. If we can redress this imbalance, we might be able to reduce the conditions of inequity that exist globally on all levels of society and help to promote a more stable, peaceful world.
Let’s take the Middle East. Sadly, the recent “Arab Human Development Report” notes that more than half the women in the Middle East are illiterate. In addition, a significant proportion of women in the region live in rural areas, and most technology is concentrated in the cities among high-income groups and more privileged classes. The programs being developed to change that are going to take some time. But there is great potential.
Since 1985, the development initiatives of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation have concentrated in this area as a complement to the Jordanian government’s economic plans. We realized that problems of poverty, unemployment, health, education, the environment, and the rights of women and children are all fundamentally interrelated, and that they need integrated solutions.
In one particular initiative, we focused on the needs of women in rural Bedouin communities, providing them with training and access to microcredit for handicraft production. In this case, they specialized in weaving projects, making rugs out of readily available raw materials in both traditional and contemporary designs. We developed a marketing strategy that included selling these unique handicrafts over the Web, generating sustainable income for these women even when violence and conflict in our region has completely killed the tourism industry. As a result, these women have been able to achieve self-reliance and begin assuming significant economic, social and even political roles in their communities.
With every successful model, we not only develop replicable programs, but we also have an impact on the next generation of girls. These girls see dramatic changes taking place in their families as a result of their mothers’ work: the contributions they are making to the national economy and how they connect to the global economy. It is still early, but in a few years I think we will see these young women begin to expand their own thinking about their roles in society, what opportunities exist for them, and what they hope to accomplish. We have to be ready to provide them with the skills and the training to make the most of that greater vision.
Whether in industrialized or developing countries, science and technology education has not been as popular among girls as boys. That has to change. It should begin at the elementary school level, incorporating computers at an early age and encouraging girls to study science and math. And it should continue with more advanced IT training programs, which can and should adopt strategies to attract more women. Carnegie Mellon University saw a dramatic increase in the enrollment of women in its computer science programs when it integrated socially relevant subjects into the science and technology curriculum. I hope other universities will follow suit.
If more universities, companies, international institutions and certainly governments focus on these issues—not just getting the technology and the equipment, but actually looking at how they can be used by women in particular and by rural communities in general—it could have a dramatic impact on the quality of life for entire societies in the developing world. I have seen it happen.