|Topic:||From nominal to phenomenal – gender balance in the digital world|
|Organisation:||Telkom South Africa|
Papi Molotsane is Telkom South Africa’s CEO. Prior to joining Telkom, he served as the group executive of Transnet, and as the CEO of Fedics. Mr Molotsane has a broad-based professional background in engineering, systems, operations, sales, marketing and human resources. Mr Molotsane is currently a director of South Africa’s America’s Cup Challenge and a director of Vodacom. Previously he acted as a director of Arivia.kom and Fike Investment (Pty) Limited. Mr Molotsane has a Bachelor of Science in Business Services, a Bachelor of Engineering Technology and Master of Science in Business Administration. Mr Molotsane also completed the Stanford Executive Programme in the USA.
The digital divide runs along economic, geographic and racial lines; it also runs along the gender line.The information society has widened the gender gap in society. Giving women access to, and training for, information and communications technology is essential to empower women and, also, to drive economic and social inclusion of Africa’s rural areas. If the gender question in developing countries is not dealt with, the Web will never be truly World Wide and digital marginalisation will continue to flourish.
One of the Millennium Development Goals is to promote gender equality and empower women. Information and communication technology has created a chasm, a ‘two-speed’ society, one that is capable of accessing and using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) while the other languishes on the sideline. This division has the potential to exacerbate the world’s economic and social problems. Demeaning the importance of this digital divide would be an act of gross irresponsibility. The digital divide is a crisis and, if left unattended, it could have results nothing short of catastrophic. The digital divide is mostly along economic, geographic and racial lines, but the divide runs also along the gender line. If the gender question is not dealt with, especially in developing countries, the Web will never be truly World Wide and digital marginalisation will continue to flourish. The African gender digital divide More than half of all Africans are women; development is impossible if we do not include women. If the continent is to share in the benefits of the global information society, it is imperative that women’s productive potential is given free reign by empowering them with information. The issue of access to ICT is at the heart of the digital divide. However, in the African context obstacles go beyond connectivity. On a socio-cultural level, women bear extensive familial responsibility and play a significant role in small-scale agriculture. For these women, the words of Hillary Clinton ring poignantly true: “For many women, it is an act of courage to get through the day.” Women have less access to various levels of formal education. Inequitable allocation of education and training resources has resulted in more than 90 million girls between the ages of six and 11 not attending school. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, only some 57 per cent of girls are enrolled in primary school. Sociological factors, too, play a role in denying women access to the information revolution. Parents are not enthusiastic about their daughters pursuing long-term studies, and women who are exposed to higher education are often socialised towards non-technical careers. The situation is worsened by the fact that technology is viewed by some cultures in a gender-specific context similar to, for example, a physician being construed as masculine and a nurse as feminine. In addition, extreme poverty, rural dispersion, quickly-earned money as the primary norm of social success and early pregnancy hamper women’s emancipation and alienate them from the benefits made possible by the information infrastructure. The quest for Africa’s ‘digital divas’ Much has been said about the role of the global economy in perpetuating inequalities, and how these inequalities are mirrored within societies. Gender disparity is one such manifestation. Inequality also surfaces in the form of class disparity between women. It is obvious that this situation cannot continue, and it is incumbent upon all industry stakeholders to question the issue and conceptualise appropriate strategies. I want to mention three possibilities, namely, infrastructure, education and policy formulation. Firstly, and most obviously, the communications infrastructure must be strengthened. While the problems of inadequate infrastructure are well documented, we have rarely, if ever, addressed these with a gender perspective. The vast majority of African women reside in rural areas, and they are poor. This is important to take into account when choices are made about network architecture and equipment. Without appropriate, cost-effective solutions, Africa’s networks will benefit only a minority. Multi-skilled workers and lifelong learning are concepts synonymous with the global economy. There can be no doubt that human capital is the most valuable asset in the information age. The best illustration of the information age concept is, perhaps, the estimate that there is more information in a single edition of the New York Times than a 16th Century citizen had to process in the whole of his or her life. The volume of information demanded by a global community where technology reigns supreme, has resulted in information skills becoming a powerful weapon, perhaps even a necessity for survival. It is therefore imperative that, beyond fundamental literacy, women must be equipped with skills to prepare them for a range of roles in ICT: firstly as users, but also on a higher level as creators and designers. Such a process starts with information literacy – a skill built on an awareness of the value of information. This is easier said than done. Again, it is crucial to act in accordance with the specific requirements of these women. For example, training in distant centres will not benefit rural women. Instead, women should receive training where they reside, and according to a schedule that fits the realities of their lives. Another example is the establishment of information centres in appropriate locations. The dissemination of information would be the basic function of such centres, be it about new resources or new initiatives. Knowledge is still power and the ultimate goal is to change women’s attitudes towards information to the extent that the process of being informed and informing becomes a reflex action. Yet another component of the education imperative is compelling and useful content. The African continent is a consumer of content. This must change and African women need to become content creators. Content development at the local level, in local languages, based on local needs and utilising user-friendly software is the foundation of such an endeavour. Women’s enthusiasm will increase if they can use ICT for a reciprocal flow of information – something that is dependent on culturally resonant content. Take health as an example. Well-informed women can avoid contracting HIV/Aids that so ravages the continent. Access to information can reduce early pregnancies and, consequently, infant mortality. Women will be able to diagnose and treat minor diseases without having to undertake what is often an arduous journey to the nearest clinic. Lastly, the policy-making process must make provision for the needs and aspirations of women. A prerequisite is the inclusion of a gender analysis based on reliable data. A second is greater representation by women on decision-making bodies. A third is a gender sensitisation process for policy-makers. A fourth is the involvement of women advocates and activists in global, national and regional policy formulation. Lack of familiarity with ICT – and lack of training to deal with it – is just part of the microcosm of gender inequalities prevalent in society today; nevertheless, it is a major contributor to the phenomenon known as the digital divide. Much work is needed to rectify this situation and ensure the potential of ICT is made available to the women of the African continent. Until we cross this divide, until we allow African women, and indeed women everywhere, to contribute to and benefit from the information economy, our goal of constructing a digital world will always have a shadow looming over it. I am tempted to say our brave new world will be just noise without the digital divas’ voices.