October 2003

ICT and Gender

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Women in general allocate more time1 to the household, often in a critical period of their career. This lowers their productivity in the external labour market, and by lowering learning-by-doing in remunerative skills, lowers future earnings as well. Perceptions and power magnify the distortions. Others doubt women's ability, but women doubt themselves, and this self-doubt further harms their prospects.In these circumstances, ICT and the Internet offer great benefits to society and to women. They can reduce this waste of potential human resources since they facilitate flexi-time activity, lower location constraints, and make it feasible for women to maintain and upgrade skills.

This above assumption implies that participation of women in this technology should rise relative to that of others, if ICT uniquely compensates for some of women's special disadvantages. There is evidence that this is happening. For example, Morahan-Martin concluded in 1998, “the Internet has been dominated by males since its inception. Although use of the Internet by females has increased dramatically in the last few years, women and girls worldwide still use the Internet less and in different ways than males. Low Internet use by females not only gives them less access to information and services available online, but also can have negative economic and educational consequences”. But just two years later a survey based study (Rickert and Sacharow, 2000) recorded that, in the first quarter of 2000, American women overtook men as a percentage of Internet users. Since America was one of the earliest countries where the Internet spread, this portends future trends elsewhere. In 2003, study in the US, commissioned by IBM, that compared women and men business owners with respect to ICT usage, discovered that women exceeded men both in the use of new technology and the way it was used to assist businesses. Their lead varied from 4 to 11 percent2

The women's movement recognizes the importance of the Internet, but fears are expressed that women may be left behind and end up as have-nots. The reasons are that women may have less online access than men do, because they have less time, money, control, learning opportunities, more of other commitments, and they give priority to others' needs. The majority view is that gender bias and misperceptions must first be removed for women to be able to reap the full potential benefits of the new technologies3. The analysis suggests that the Internet will give women more time, educational opportunities, and money even if they continue to give priority to others' needs. These changes can take time and have to battle entrenched prejudices, whether those of women or their employers. Therefore, special conditions and policies are required to aid the process.

I turn to examine the fears expressed in the women's literature, and the extent to which events have validated them.

Unfounded fears
Power and technology: If asymmetric power or perceptions of inequity are deeply ingrained, then even with new technology, an improvement in women's position will take time, and require support. These distortions lead to a deep ambivalence in women's relation with technology. Banerjee and Mittar (1998) report that women are the first to lose jobs since they tend to do simple mechanical tasks that machines can easily replace. Women have the reputation of being inflexible carriers of tradition, but this position is actually due to underlying patriarchal relations. Their education is, normally such that they learn only to do A and B, not why A and B. They are even denied labour saving devices, such as pressure cookers in the kitchen, because women are regarded as technologically inept and their time is not valuable.

But Wadley (2000), in tracing four generations of women in a Brahmin (upper- caste) household in a village Karimpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, finds that there are changes in lifestyles, incomes, education and options. Compared to their grandmothers, women running households, today, have much more time, because foods are processed outside. They no longer have to grind flour manually. But they spend the time largely in religious rituals for the benefit of their families. The Internet should allow this time to be more productively utilized.

Many of the women teleworkers Gothoskar (2000) interviewed in Mumbai, were working with high technology, but she found them clustered at the low end. Home working was actually negative for them since they needed liberation from the power relations at home. Technology had made them non-stop workers, much like Wadley's first generation “Amma”, instead of improving their options.

Women's perceptions of possibilities are also limited and need to be changed. The key question seems to be the level of skills and of supportive organizations. Those working at the high end have much more freedom and control of their lives4. Organizations such as the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh have been able to deliver some freedoms to their low-end members. Such associations are essential to forestall attempts by power centers to fight change. An instance of this was the takeover of a successful computer-aided retail effort, Guyanese village women had made in Latin America (TOI, 2000b). The women were forcibly kept at a low level.

Access and equity: If studies have begun to show that women out number men in net use, then they must be able to get access. Relatively affluent home workers have the freedom to adjust their tasks so that they can use computer and Internet facilities when others are away. There are sites that facilitate co-operative child caring for those with very young children, so that more free time is created5. Telecentres and net-based community centres have become common in developed countries; these have the potential for helping with community issues. To ensure that women are included, it is important to make the place comfortable and safe. UNDP has supported such a pilot project in Egypt6. Meanwhile, cybercafes and kiosks are coming up in a big way, in less developed countries. Ramani writes in Mittar (2000) that growth of these kiosks in India has been rapid, especially in the Southern Indian states where English literacy is high. They create low cost jobs (at about $2,500 a job). Internet usage skills are also spread at low cost, thus, facilitating future teleworking. A survey in eight Indian cities showed that non-working women access the net 63 per cent from cybercafes and 32 per cent from the home (TOI, 2000a). Support is required for women with low resources, language and literacy barriers. But, computers have begun improving life in Indian villages. A knowledge center project of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation7 in India has connected four villages in Pondicherry with practical local information in Tamil. The latter has proved very useful in improving agricultural practices and marketing, and access to medical facilities. Women often operate the computer centers (Swaminathan, 2000 and TOI, 2000b). Another positive spin-off is that the returns to literacy and therefore its spread will rise.

Self Help Groups (SHGs) of rural women, formed in Andhra Pradesh, have been so successful in marketing their products, both at home and abroad, that major consumer good MNCs (multi national corporations) want to use their selling power. The groups cover nearly 6 million women. They make profits and are excellent debtors having returned 98 percent of USD* 200 millions borrowed so far. As a result banks are also lining up to lend to them (Pantulu, 2003). ICT makes such decentralized initiatives feasible. There are reports that higher speed Internet access in the city of Birmingham, UK, has helped many single mothers make ends meet.

Direct and indirect employment and organization: Telework, defined as work done from a distance, is becoming feasible with the new technologies. Women often do this type of work. Some see it as easiy to integrated with child-care. Others see telework as a low wage, isolating activity without pension and other benefits, where women can easily be exploited. Table 1, with employment projections for India made by the National Association for Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), gives an indication of potential employment. These projections are not at all fanciful. In 2001-2002 the ITES-BPO sector alone grew at 59 per cent, and employment had reached 106,000 (NASSCOM, 2003).

Datamatics, an Indian software company, has women as 98 per cent of its 600 home based workers. They consciously set out to tap the pool of skilled women who have left their jobs for family reasons. Firms such as Novell and Wipro are using telecommuting to maintain the skills of female staff with young children.

Self-employment offers real advantages for women since it allows women to fit in their reproductive roles, work from home, and gives them a flexible work schedule. Studies have documented a rise in women's self-employment in the US, Canada, Mexico and Argentina. Therefore an effective way to improve women's position is to improve the returns to self-employment. This will happen if skills and organization rise in the latter.

Gothoskar (2000) in interviews with women teleworkers in Mumbai gets responses that range from welcoming the freedom to fulfill family commitments to dislike of the lack of access to public and social spaces and reinforcement of the role at home. Ng and Jin (2000) got similar responses in Malaysia, but also found that high-end workers valued the freedoms of working from home, and low-end workers missed the going out. Employers were also reluctant to give up the physical monitoring that an office makes possible for the latter. Ng and Jin argued that telecentres can solve these problems, combining homework with social spaces and organization. Skill upgradation of low-end contract workers is important. And one way to do this is to move to entrepreneurship on the Internet.

The Internet can offer great aid to entrepreneurship by women. It offers databases, put together by women's groups, from which women can find relevant links, connections, resources and information, and develop partnerships, not just of their services, but also for financing, mentoring and business coaching. It can even mitigate the barrier of lack of access to capital (see, WIC, 1997). Support groups can be formed through electronic bulletin boards8. Thus the Internet itself can help to organize and build solidarity with and between people working from home offices. It can break down isolation, aid job related concerted action, or just increase information, opportunities and interaction. Developing country and rural women, who produce goods and services, may be able to sell directly without going through middlemen.

Since corporations are downsizing and out of services, many men are also choosing to work from home opening niche businesses, offering specialised services.

Often, couples are doing it together. This, together with more equal education, can meet the criticism that if a woman works at home she will end up doing all the housework as well. Household work can be more equally shared. The Internet is relatively new and its use is not yet fully at its potential. But the signs are encouraging.

A survey of 55,000 American users (Rickert and Sacharow, 2000) found that women tend to make very practical use of the net, concentrating on facilities that improve their and their families' lives. The largest percentage of users are in the agegroup 25-44, and one of the top ten websites they visit has to do with developing home entrepreneurship9. Since web use depends on the age profile, overall travel, retail and family care are dominant for women in America and Europe. But a survey of 24,848 high-income Indian users found that job related information dominated for women (table 2).

Learning and Internet use: An interesting feature of the Rickert and Sacharow (2000) survey was that although the majority of American women make non-work related use of the Internet, the fastest growing section of web users was teenage girls10. This familiarity with the Internet will allow them to use it for their careers in the future. Much as Internet kiosks and cybercafes, which are spreading Internet skills in India, will allow an explosive growth in the future.

Apart from learning to use the Internet itself, women's access to general training also increases. Women learn best when the material is relevant; there is time for reflection; diverse and fun-filled ways to learn are used; there are passionate teachers, good role models, and a safe environment (WIC, 1997). They can find or create such a supportive, sharing community online. TheInternet aids interactivity, which is very important for effective learning. Exposure to time management skills, essential for effective home working, will also be required.

The Internet helps match women and employment possibilities. It becomes possible to find high value added work and combine it with the production function for household goods, so that women's skills do not atrophy. It can create a safe space for women because they appear without gender and so escape stereotyping in perceptions.

Formal Education: The Internet offers time and location flexibility, support, training and opportunity. But initial technical education can help in honing the ability to seize this opportunity, make the most of it in the future, and remove the self-fulfilling belief that women and technology do not go together. Bangalore is an IT boom town in India. There has been a mushroom growth in private polytechnics to supply the huge demand for human resources in this area. But enrolment of women in private polytechnics is lower than in public ones (table 3), and also lower in engineering compared to other courses (table 4). There is 30 per cent reservation for girls in Public polytechnics and the fee structure is lower (Ushadevi, 2000). These facts point to the necessity of policy intervention.

Implications for policy
There is increasing understanding of the importance of gender sensitivity in formulating policy. In feminist literature there is the modernizing, women in development (WID), approach. But the Gender and Development (GAD) approach is doubtful about the automatic improvement of women's position with modernization and argues for institution and culture sensitive programs. For example, as structural adjustment programs drove women into the in

formal sector, they expected the latter's status to fall. But there is evidence that conscious policies followed for the empowerment of women, in recent years, have prevented this negative effect. Specific gender sensitive policies for empowering women are effective. Improving their access to new technologies is a powerful way of empowering them. Moreover, women's willingness to use the new technologies will also improve with general empowerment. These are some aspects where technology implication can bring some changes.

Since structural labour market demand and supply factors dictate demand and supply distortions in female labor, policies that mitigate these factors in order to raise female wages would be more effective than policies that target endowment inequalities. For example, rather than attempting to lower the reservation wage of women, it would be better to subsidize childcare. Improving female skills in and use of new technology would raise female productivity and wages. As women's adoption of the new technologies raises their welfare without lowering that of anyone else, it offers a Pareto improvement to society. Therefore, policies specific to the new technologies must be adopted. Women are paid less than men and have less free time, so funding should be made available to ensure that women have access to computers and the Internet. It is important to ensure high bandwidth and speed. Facilities should be provided to cater to low income and rural women while maintaining respect for diversity. Formal education must favor young women in these areas. To enhance learning and culturally sensitive training and information, women's only access sites should be encouraged. Laws needed to regulate teleworking. Women's successes in Internet related businesses need to be publicized. In networks the value of marginal users can be very high. In broadcasting services, for example, it is more efficient to subsidize senders of messages than the recipients. The efficiency properties of intervention, to encourage web use by women, should be explored on similar lines by subsiding web services related to home businesses, rather than women simply as Internet users.

To sum up

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