Online Technology and Networking
Some Gender Perspectives



Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-057. June 2015.



Abstract

The worldwide network of computers, the Internet, has enabled instantaneous two way distribution of information on one-to-one and many-to-many modes. The popularity of the Internet can be attributed, among other characteristics, to its global reach, its interactivity, and its speed and currency. It has proven useful in three aspects of information management: (a) discussing - debate, answering questions, enquires and requests; (b) distributing - sharing ideas and information; and (c) accessing - electronic databases on a variety of topics.

Parallel to this, and mutually supportive, has been the emergence of online technology and networking. The growing predominance of technology in a consumer and market oriented society has highlighted the need for online networking among technology providers and technology users. Such networking technology has targeted businesses, scientists, researchers, academicians and others in various fields.

But inherent to successful online networking has been access to such means and methodologies. There has been a growing class of 'information poor' who have been excluded due to income levels, age, and/or gender. Women are particularly seen only as 'consumers' of information and Internet services. Isolation, disregard for local needs and constraints, lack of equipment, expertise and training, insufficient or no policy support, and little pertinent and timely information are some of the barriers encountered.

The paper explores these issues by providing an overview of the Internet and online environments and taking up technology networking from a gender perspective. It evaluates characterizes current problems and shortcomings and comes up with proposals to rectify and enhance the situation.

This paper essentially explores the gender dimensions of the Internet, with particular the focus on technology and networking aspects. It outlines advantages and benefits that the Internet offers for technology networking, and offers gendered suggestions to overcome current barriers and shortcomings. Background research for this paper primarily comes from the setting up of three bilateral technology networks by the author between Japan and India, Venezuela and South Africa. These are, respectively, the Japan India Technology Network (JITNet), the Japan Venezuela Network (JVNet), and Japan South Africa Network (JASANet). The networks focussed primarily on providing information over the internet for small and medium enterprises in the four countries. They are supported by the three Embassies of India, Venezuela and South Africa in Tokyo, Japan.

 

Internet and Online Networking

The Internet has gained considerable importance as a communicative and adaptive means of sharing and disseminating information on developmental issues. Many subject-specific networks of individuals and organizations have grown on the Internet, rallying around shared expertise and ideals, by the enablement of new forms of communication. Examples of these new computer-mediated communications is electronic mail, the world wide web and bulletin boards, which are in fact, just the first generation of new forms of information and communications media. The digital media of computer networks, because of their design and the technology upon which they function, are fundamentally different from the current mass media of television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Computer networks encourage the active participation of individuals rather than the passive non-participation induced by television etc.

Components of the Internet

There are several components of the Internet that are widely used for online networking. The most evident are email, websites and homepages, mailing lists, newsgroups, files and databases and document archives. These are new and evolving forms of information and communications media, of which the world wide web as a means of storing and retrieving information, and email as a means of communicating and sharing information, is particularly important.

The World-Wide Web can be described as a "wide-area hypermedia information retrieval system aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents" [Web Consortium, no date]. The World-Wide Web (WWW, W3, or simply the Web) has provided users on computer networks with a consistent means to access a variety of media in a simplified fashion. Using a popular software interface to the Web such as Netscape and Internet Explorer, the Web has changed the way people view and create information.

The explosive use of the Internet can, in part, be attributed to its ease of use and ease in creating online documents. Such documents can be within the same computer or in a remote location anywhere in the world that is connected to the Internet. The information may be in the form of text, images, sound, or video. The computers can be working on different operating systems such as unix, mac, or windows.

Basic advantages of the Internet

From a developmental point of view, there have been essentially three very broad areas where the Internet has proved viable: (a) query processing - answering questions, enquires and requests; (b) sharing of ideas and information about policies, programmes, projects and plans; and (c) database development on a variety of subjects.

Digital communications media are inherently capable of being more interactive, more participatory, more egalitarian, more decentralized, and less hierarchical [EFF, 1994]. As such, the types of social relations and communities which can be built on these media share these characteristics. These relationships have developed in two ways - (a) where existing forms of face-to-face interaction have been adapted and transferred to an online environment; and (b) entirely new forms of social interaction have developed based on means and mechanisms that an online environment provides. This has also meant that existing and new forms of bias, exclusion and harassment have also manifested themselves online.

As mentioned above, in mass media such as television, radio or newspapers, the vast majority of participants are passive recipients of information. In digital communications media, the vast majority of participants are active creators of information as well as recipients. This type of interaction has previously only been found in media like the telephone. But while the telephone is almost entirely a medium for private one-to-one communication, computer network applications such as electronic mailing lists, conferences, and bulletin boards, serve as a medium of group communication in a one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many modes [Srinivas 1997].

The most important aspect of the Internet's adaptability is its ability to provide a convenient and inexpensive platform to bring key stakehoders together to share experiences and information, enabling effective development and decision-making. But such platforms are more than just the networks or the content that is shared through it; it helps create effective support groups and collaborations that can take collective action in a broad and cost-effective manner.

The Internet enables a wide range of interactive and collaborative activities to take place. There has been essentially three areas where the Internet has proved particularly viable [Srinivas 1996]:

Query processing: answering questions, enquires etc.

Sharing of Ideas and information about policies, programmes and projects

Databases on a wide variety of subjects.

a. Query Processing:

Mailing lists, newsgroups, electronic bulletin boards etc. have helped people communicate, enabling widely scattered information to become more accessible by posting questions to Internet users. A number of mailing lists on various topics have been in existence, which can be subscribed to, and used to post messages to all users of that list.

b. Sharing of ideas:

Governments, NGOs, Academic institutions, consultants, national and international organizations etc. have set up "homepages" on the world wide web, with information on their organization and operations. Publications, project information, news and events etc. are made available online, enabling its sharing and wider dissemination, and matching of needs and resources.

c. Subject-specific databases:

Web-based databases on a wide variety of topics have been developed. Such databases generally carry bibliographies, case studies, best practices and ideas, documents and write-ups, tools and strategies, mailing lists/newsgroups, links to other sites, email and addresses of useful/relevant organizations.

Besides enabling the sharing and replication of good practices and approaches, such networking and partnerships over the Internet also avoid duplication and overlap of efforts. Activities are synchronized, ideas and experiences shared, and information collated, so that work can be done more effectively. The evolution of the Internet and its tools, therefore, can be compared to the invention of the telephone or printing press. It has enabled communication and dissemination on a global scale, but at a low cost and ease of use.

There are many dimensions of development from community to global levels, that have been enabled, facilitated and empowered by the use of the Internet. Here, the twin issues of online networking and enabling technology are explored from the viewpoint of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). A gender perspective is taken by highlighting the key issues, and delineating the roles of online networking.

 

Technology Networking

Effective online networking and technology for enterprise development has to be seen in relation to changing international economic scenarios that have caused a drastic shift of investment flows from advanced countries to developing countries. Such a scenario has been brought about by two main factors:

1. Liberalization of decades of socialistic practices (both political and economic) on the part of developing countries. This has effectively helped open up their economies to previously shunned external investment, as well as create greater opportunities in a global level playing field for their industries and professionals.

2. A growing sense of "hollowing-out" on the part of advanced countries, where rising costs related to production, labour, transportation, communication etc. has prompted them to move out of their home countries to developing countries.

Several other sub-factors, such as the breaking of traditional subcontracting links that existed between large corporations and small/medium enterprises, erosion of the R&D base for SMEs that was usually provided by large corporations, excess liquid capital with financial institutions etc. have also been responsible [Srinivas 1995].

This increasing shift of the global industrial enterprises towards developing countries has self-reinforcing advantages for each other. On the part of advanced economies, these include reduced production and other costs, highly trained local professionals, larger market base for their products. SMEs have also been able to regain their R&D linkages with research institutions and firms located in developing countries.

What have been the implications of this scenarios? How has it affect women-owned SMEs - particularly those that are home-based, or one-person enterprises? Many studies have clearly shown that the most vulnerable group in developing countries are women of all age and income groups [Hardings 1996, Moser 1993, and Ebben 1993].

Information Repositories

For the developing countries in general, increased global networking and technology flows has meant access to a quantum leap in financial resources available for development and production, better technologies, investment in essential/critical sectors such as power, transportation and infrastructure etc.

This trend is well known and widely discussed in the current media and literature [Brown 1986, Chang 1994, Dahlman 1991, Hikino 1994, Chan 1993]. However, one critical support component that has emerged as a result of this globalization is that of information. Sharing and dissemination of information on technologies and its management, between small and medium enterprises in advanced and developing countries has been an important aspect of broad-based development, and accelerating the process of technology-based investments and upgradation.

But how has technology information been collected, packaged and disseminated? How is it being made available to the end user? What has been the reach and spread of this information? There are many indications to illustrate the fact that women particularly in developing countries, are the losers in this information process, where access to information that is pertinent and timely; and information that can be used, is missing. Isolation, approaches that disregard local needs and constraints, lack of necessary equipment, no local expertise or models; lack of appropriate training, support or policy are some of the other constraints faced by women [Banks 1998].

Research and Training

In the past, gender bias has been an inadvertent feature of some enterprise support programmes, where technologies have been introduced in ways that have benefited male entrepreneurs at the expense of competing women's businesses. There has been a lack of a gender-sensitive perspective, that takes into account the often differing needs of men and women entrepreneurs. Although the provision of improved technologies for women's enterprises is an important means of strengthening the economic status of women, such attempts at technology transfer have been difficult or lacking. There has been no promotion and integration of a gender perspective in "mainstream" enterprise-support programmes, including several that specifically target women's enterprises [Malcom 1996]. Thus, research and technology training has not been fully harnessed to improve the socio-economic positions of both men and women.

There is a clear need for training programmes and guidelines to strengthen the awareness of the needs of both men and women, for application within organizations. Assessments of project proposals have to be done to determine their likely impact on both men and women, along with

conducting gender evaluations and assessments.

Training programmes and guidelines for local organizations and project staff to improve the success of technology transfer for women's enterprises are lacking, and so is support for the introduction of new and non-traditional commercial activities for women and other specific groups. This is critical since it is intrinsically linked with research into technology-related issues affecting both men and women, and into the particular needs of women who run micro and small-scale enterprises.

Job/Workplace issues

Discrimination, sexism, racism and xenophobia live side-by-side with unemployment, underemployment and poverty ... the Glass Ceiling is one manifestation of the perpetual struggle for equal access and equal opportunity [Redwood 1996, Shade 1993]. A lack of workforce diversity has affected the culture of the organization itself with underutilization of the talents and capabilities of a diverse workforce.

Strategic business plans of SMEs fail to achieve this diversity and instead focus on areas such as profits, capital, investment, productivity, market share etc. Inflexible working hours, lack of day care and elder care programmes, etc. have exasperated the situation.

On the other hand, SMEs, particularly those that are women-headed, face a further different set of problems due to their innovation, lack of equipment and expertise, insufficient finance or policy support from the government, etc. As a result, adaptation of new technologies, or improving product quality and profit margins, tend to suffer.

Technology Education

Education in technological issues, its effective dissemination and use, is a critical tool to accomplish sustainable human development [Malcom, no date]. With the pivotal role that women play in reproduction and family maintenance, in preserving traditional/indigenous knowledge, there is a clear need for main streaming gendered, or gender-sensitive, education schemes, particularly highlighting the role that technology education plays.

These issues have to understood from the fact that women do not have access to knowledge to be effective actors in development (and are therefore largely passive 'receivers' of developmental activities). With a entrenched disregard to women's concerns and gender dimensions at different levels of decision making, there will be a continued marginalization of women and their development.

 

Gender Perspectives

"Women should be empowered by enhancing their skills, knowledge and access to information technology. This will strengthen their ability to combat negative portrayals of women internationally and to challenge instances of abuse of power of an increasingly important industry ... Women therefore need to be involved in decision making regarding the development of the new technologies in order to participate fully in their growth and impact." - Fourth World Conference on Women

There is obviously more to gender perspectives of technology networking that just Glass Ceilings and barriers. It is more than the issue of equality - it is the diversity, a fundamental difference, in the way women approach and solve problems - a critical aspect that needs to be highlighted understood and highlighted. Thus, gender equality goes beyond men doing women's work, and women doing men's work - in fact, it concerns respecting and understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses in a "gender partnership." For example, the consensual, face-to-face group approach to problem solving is a unique way in which women work, in contrast to the go-for-it-alone, fear-of-failure approach of men. Women are much better at taking advantage of the collective energy of team work, but less adept at taking risks.

Entrenched misconceptions and barriers however, exist. Some of the barriers that prevent the advancement of women in technological fields and access to technologies are societal barriers, which include a supply barrier related to women's educational opportunities and the level of job attainment, affecting their preparedness to development and change. A "difference" barrier of conscious and unconscious stereotyping and bias. This translates into a mind set that people, for example, who do the hiring feel most comfortable "hiring people who look like them." Governmental barriers include the collection and disaggregation of employment related data which make it difficult to ascertain the status of women vis-a-vis various groups at the managerial level. Internal structural barriers or business barriers include outreach and recruitment practices that do not reach or recruit women and minorities; corporate climates that alienate and isolate; barriers that restrict career growth because of poor training, inadequate peer support, biased rating and testing systems; few or no internal communication networks; limited rotational job assignments that lead to the executive suite; and institutional rigidity that deny the fragile family and work balance [Redwood 1996].

Most of these barriers and shortcomings, when traced back to identify their causes and effects, tend to stem from a fundamental lack of access and priority assigned to education, awareness and information that is targeted at women. Specifically with respect to information management and communication, high rates of illiteracy among women are the first obstacle to its wide-spread use. In developing countries, language issues are intensified for women, with less time, money and access for learning English, the dominant online language, or for translation of existing information and training documents into other local languages. Women have less access to basic computer literacy courses raising the importance of NGOs and community groups as local intermediaries.

Information management and Communication

As clearly demonstrated in the above sections, the key tool that enables effective networking for technology is information. The importance of information and of technologies to transmit and disseminate information for development is well recognized. But access to information and technology is wort with difficulties, especially when non gender- differentiated approaches and technologies are implemented. Most of the positive effects of the 'information revolution' have in fact bypassed women. There has been little research done on women's information needs and access to appropriate information in developing countries [Huyer 1997, Shade 1993]. The 'information highway' is still predominantly male-oriented, and often a forum for gender discrimination, intimidation and even harassment. The profound, gendered implications of information for both men and women in employment, education, training, and other productive and personal development areas mean that women need encouragement and support to take their place in the information revolution.

What will the need for increased technical and operational skill levels mean for women's employment in the future? Women are engaging in formal and informal entrepreneurial activities on a large scale. There is no doubt that women are becoming the main economic force in developing countries. As economies become more and more information-driven, the issues of women's access to information, its production and dissemination it will become increasingly important. The field of information and communication constitutes a significant element of science and technology, and will increasingly influence the content and mechanisms in developing countries for education and communications, and influence the creation of communities for learning, interaction and participation in community, national and international life [Huyer 1997].

Some of the important aspects include:

  1. Type of information - kinds of information that is available and necessary, modes and means of access to such information and the degree of gender consciousness that is instilled in its packaging.
  2. Information technology process - availability of technologies to women, their ease of use, policy processes around these, and the effects on women. Active involvement of women in the identification and definition of their information needs, and in the choice of mechanisms and processes to meet these needs is critical. This effects their productive participation in production and dissemination of information as well as definition of and access to the information they need.

Therefore, access to information can be seen as a critical empowerment issue. Control over the kinds of information they need and produce, and communications means and modes, is a fundamental aspect of empowerment for women.

Communications and interaction methodologies are important for the alternate, balanced and equitable portrayals of women and their potential. They are also important for facilitating analysis of women's situation and developing active strategies to improve that situation. They help women to develop confidence and experience in expressing their viewpoints publicly by allowing space for experimentation and enabling them to find allies across communities, nations and regions [Malcom 1997].

This is where the Internet comes in.

Activities on the Internet primarily revolve around the access, sharing and dissemination of information. While technologies and means are evolving, online environments provide a forum for information producers and users to be matched. The role of the Internet in managing information and enabling communication, and overcoming the disadvantageous position of women, can be seen as two facets:

1. Internet as a tool for accessing primary sources of information to support existing and ongoing activities. The Internet becomes a non-hierarchical, open and networked source of information that can be accessed by anyone. A level playing field is therefore created. (Women, however still face problems - in adoption of new technologies and methods, and in off-line mindsets and stereotyping that manifests themselves on-line).

2. Internet as a means of communication and sharing of ideas for new and developing activities. Quick, convenient and simple forms of communication using email again means that barriers and hierarchies that were traditionally in place are now eliminated or reduced.

It is important to understand the potential of the Internet in addressing the problems outlined in the previous sections. With limited funding and minimal access to the Internet services, users are able to retrieve a wide range of information, as well as communicate world-wide their problems and concerns. This opportunity for networking and the opening up of previously inaccessible sources of information is the fundamental aspect of the Internet's popularity.

 

Conclusions and Recommendations

Women's networking for technology is slowly taking hold- more and more women are using online electronic tools such as email, mailing lists, and the web, and are encouraging other women to use it too [APC 1996]. Women are building and sharing online resources that are women-focussed, and other repackage online information for non-Internet users. Several individuals and groups have achieved goals such as cost effectiveness, ease of communication, reliability, empowerment, increased productivity and broadening perspectives. Women have both negative and positive experiences in using the online networks and the Internet, both with respect to their work activities, and with respect to online communications and interactions.

But there is much that remains to be done. It should be recognized that the Internet is a tool for communication, not communication itself. Just as the telephone, radio and television are means of communication, they empower us to communicate with each other [AWI 1998]. Much of the content on the Internet today is largely produced by, and for, men. Means and technologies of communication are also male-dominated, and the applicability and micro-level use of the Internet can therefore be limited. The Internet is, as yet, an evolving medium, and many more tools, means and technologies for its uses need to be developed. But it has proven its ability to educate and raise awareness on a global scale [Shade 1993].

There is a clear need for greater involvement of women in the development of the Internet, not only for their own personal development, but also to mold an evolving, and promising medium with gender sensitivity. Partnerships need to be developed among the stakeholders - users and developers alike - to bring about a truly 'gendered' Internet.

On a more fundamental level, women professionals are leaders who have the capability and the tools to improve the future for other women everywhere. Strong parallels exist between access to knowledge, access to levers of power, and the ability to enter and advance in the workplace. Just as there is a gap for women in the workplace, there is an increasing gap between the information rich and the information poor. It is critical that women have access to the wealth of information which resides on the Internet in the form of news, research, information exchange, debate, communication and the intellectual growth and stimulation which interaction with new technology brings [AWI 1998].

Clearly, the key to overcoming the barriers, shortcomings and misconceptions of women's participation and roles lies in-depth and concerted education of women. By promoting equal access for young women to scientific and technological areas, enhancing literacy, and providing opportunities for increased technological training. Also, with the predominance of women in community and household decision-making, their grasp of indigenous and local knowledge of resources and lifestyles is critical for sustainable development. A clear effort to tap this knowledge and unite it to existing formal educational processes has to take place.

A broader reassessment of goals and ethics of research and development, of strengthening women's roles in decision-making , and of sharing the benefits of women's contributions to technological development, has to take place if effective mainstreaming of women is to take place.

A multi-actor partnership needs to be developed to address the problems. Governments enable equal access and opportunity for all - both internally, in their policies and programmes, and externally, in the private sector and the larger civil society. The civil society's barrier forming attitudes and misconceptions need to be changed, and stereotypes, prejudice and bias are reduced. Print and visual media play an important role in eliminating the above negative views - by highlighting them, and focussing on accuracy, balance and depth of coverage of current issues. The educational community at all levels - from schools to universities - also have a fundamental role to play in raising awareness and generating debate and dialogue on these issues.

 

In more concrete terms, there is a clear need to create an environment where women-focussed networks and networking can function on-line. By partnering communities and women's groups, the strategic and practical use of information and communication technologies should be encouraged. A more gender-sensitive development of online information content should be facilitated, and further lobbying and advocacy for a change in attitudes and approaches.

Relevant information and online content need to be produced, managed and delivered appropriately. Telephone and other communication infrastructure beyond the cities remains under-developed and will critically affect access to Internet and online services. International investment in technical training and capacity building - a critical need, especially to bring more women into networking - is particularly needed.

The above specific measures can be systematized by developing a series of "gender information systems" that not only address the issues of gender imbalances, but also serves as a gender database for women groups. Specific information on women's groups, statistics, gender policies, programmes, projects and plans etc. are made available. A 'network' of such networks can provide tools, in the form of practical ideas, guides, strategies, courses and methodologies; success stories, in the form of case studies, comparisons, inspiring ideas, and best practices; articles, in the form of theoretical and practical analyses of the issues of interest; and resources, in the form of organizational and operational information on current policies, programmes, projects and other initiatives.

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