We live in a world where access to everything — healthcare, education, politics and economics — is often determined by our access to the internet and technology. That access bridges many gaps, from geographical to socioeconomic, allowing people from around the globe in any circumstance to contribute information.
But we also live in a world where women are not afforded the same access to technology as men. Women are less likely to own cell phones or computers, and they are much less likely, in the US and abroad, to be in STEM careers or high-paying leadership roles.
A report by the United Nations' Broadband Commission Working Group showed that 200 million more men have access to the internet than women — 41% of men worldwide compared to 37% of women. Even in the developed world, where internet access is widespread, there is a gap: 80% of men and 74% of women.
There is a huge gap, but there is also a huge opportunity. According to that same UN report, bringing an additional 600 million women and girls online could boost GDP by $18 million. With access to the internet, women can fill the growing number of STEM jobs. They can report and map violence and rape more effectively and connect each other with support services when they are at risk. They can have access to things like banking services and information and education, no matter their location.
"As an organization that is based near the cusp of Silicon Valley - but that engages with women at the grassroots level all over the world - we felt we had a unique role to play in surfacing these issues, and impressing upon people how timely and pressing the issue of gender inequality in technology is becoming," said Clare Winterton, vice president of advocacy and innovation for the Global Fund for Women, a nonprofit foundation that funds women's human rights initiatives.
How the spark started
According to Winterton, 80% of the local organizations Global Fund for Women supports around the world reported that improving technology capacity was a priority for them. IGNITE is a campaign by the Global Fund for Women to turn technology into a women's human rights issue. The conversation about women and STEM in the US is only beginning, and it rarely extends to include the global world. The IGNITE campaign was made to show the successes and barriers women faced by women and girls around the world.
It has been several years in the works, but IGNITE officially launched in November 2014. The foundation decided on an online media campaign because it can disrupt the traditional, stereotypical information girls and women are so often exposed to in traditional media.
That information starts from a young age, said Catherine King, executive producer of Global Fund for Women. Gender roles and norms are perpetuated by parents and teachers, which prohibit girls from advancing in STEM subjects; many teachers have a tendency to pay more attention to boys in math and science classes; girls and women can be intimidated in those classes; and masculine images of science and technology are pervasive in our cultures.
"Through a media campaign like IGNITE we can be part of changing the face of women in tech," King said. "We know that media and storytelling have the power to engage audiences in a more personal way, to create a connection, raise awareness, educate, fuel dialogue, establish the need for change, and spark action that leads to transformation."
The Global Fund for Women has led many other campaigns before, and received feedback from people wanting more opportunities to connect with stories and hear more voices. They also wanted more ways to take action.
The goal of IGNITE is to elevate voices of women and provide the tools for audiences to engage. There are several ways the Global Fund for Women wants people to do that:
- Contribute a Spark Story to share the moments, people, or events that sparked their interest in science, engineering, math, and technology.
- Sign the petition to end the technology gender gap. Currently there are more than 6,200 supporters, but the organization has a goal of 20,000.
- Use the #BeTheSpark hashtag to drive excitement and engagement on social media.
- Donate to the Tech Fund, where money goes to helps groups such as The Inwelle Study and Resource Centre in Enugu, Nigeria, which teaches teenage girls technology skills. The center started because they noticed girls weren't able to come to courses because of their responsibilities at home. So they started an annual boot camp for them.
IGNITE has attracted tech talent from everywhere to spread its message, and there is a Leaders Gallery that showcases them. For instance, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared in a video about encouraging women and girls to be leaders in their communities with science and tech.
Feminist activist and writer Jac Sm Kee wrote a piece for the campaign about online safety. In it, she said:
"The hardest part is in changing the gendered culture of technology. Online violence against women is an overt expression of the gender discrimination and inequality that exists offline. Online, it becomes amplified. The most important way to shift this is to enable women and girls to engage with the internet at all levels - from use, creation, and development to the imagination of what it should and can be."
The global potential
Maria Rita Spina Bueno heads an organization in Brazil called MIA - Women Angel Investors (Mulheres Investidoras Anjos) - to involve more women in angel investment and tech entrepreneurship to level the playing field. She shared her story with IGNITE, and is now one of their featured leaders.
"There are a lot of movements all over the world that are working to bridge the gender technology gap and address issues of women's and girls' rights in their own communities through STEM, digital literacy, mobile access, and more - and IGNITE helps bring many of them to light by showcasing leaders, creatives, and visionaries around the world and emphasizing that technology is a global women's rights issue that we all must address together."
For the Global Fund for Women, it's about making the connection that this is a human rights issue and one that we should address immediately. Some of the organization's partners around the world have shown time and time again that when they have the access to technology and learn these skills, they innovate and begin to use STEM to drive gender equality and address needs for women and girls in their communities.
Throughout 2015, IGNITE will be developing new content. One project is called "Geeks" (coming in March) which challenges stereotypes about girls in STEM and features hackathons. "Change Makers," which is coming in May, shows ways to use new technology to meet global social challenges. IGNITE is connecting girls from Brazil, Nigeria, India, Kenya, Taiwan, and the US in an International Girls Hackathon coming up soon as well.
King said they also plan to grow Global Fund for Women's Technology Initiative. The vision is to establish a technology fund to support grassroots women's organizations.
"Because women and girls have been effectively left on the sidelines of the global technology revolution - considered "consumers" but not "creators" - today's technology does not reflect the diversity of women's experiences, imagination, or ingenuity," Winterton said. "By limiting the participation of women and girls in science and technology, we too often limit ourselves to only half of the world's ideas."
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.