The typewriter did much to bring women out of the home and into the office, but the journey to financial independence from men in their family, their fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles, and inlaws in the IT world still far away.
In 1881, a branch of the YWCA in New York City came up with the novel idea of teaching eight young women to type for the purpose of entering the business world. Some criticism was expressed of such a bold step, for it meant that women would be required to work all day near men to whom they were not related. None of the eight backed away from the rigors of a sixmonth typing course. All were promptly hired to work in business offices. This new technology, the writing machine, opened an employment floodgate. It offered higher wages than other jobs open to women and pleasanter working conditions. It was one of the few types of employment for women requiring literacy. Women poured into offices across the land.
They became not only typists, but stenographers and secretaries, two careers limited to men. Some women, seeing that they could make even more money with their newfound typing skills as entrepreneurs, went into business for themselves as public typist-stenographers; their presence encouraged the twin concepts of women and machines in the business office. Now typewriter sales boomed.
Much more significant, the typewriter helped free women from financial dependence on the men in their family, their fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles, and inlaws. It did much to bring them out of the home and into the office. Other factors were also at play. It has been argued that the demand for clerical labor, and not the typewriter, brought women into offices. Gas lighting, which made the streets safer for women to take evening classes, also had a part in creating independence for women. Whichever was the more significant cause, the feminization of clerical labor roiled the waters of the late nineteenth century, and still roils the waters as humankind prepares to enter the twenty-first century.
However, in today’s IT world, women entrepreneurs have also become an important engines of wealth creation: they manage 35 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries, namely more than one third of 95 per cent of all enterprises. In Japan 80 per cent of small business owners are women, while in China women account for 25 per cent of all new business start-ups. While this statistics is encouraging, a new study has revealed that the level and extent of female employees’ presence in mid-to upper-level IT-related jobs is still quite low. Although in the United States, women are a significant proportion of the IT work force, the study argues that they represent merely 9 per cent of engineers, 26.9 per cent of system analysts and 28.5 per cent of computer programmers. Conversely, they make up the majority of data entry workers, at 85 per cent. Once the administrative support positions of data entry keyers and computer operators are removed, women comprehensively represent only 25 per cent of the professional IT workforce, according to the report.
Unlike the recent trend in the United States, the online female population is a minority in Asia and Africa, accounting for only 22 per cent of Internet users. Even in the business sector, most women are not yet exploiting the advantages offered by the Internet connection. For example, out of 15,000 businesswomen surveyed in Asia, only 12 per cent have e-mail accounts. Women represent nearly 40 per cent of the labour force in Asia and the Pacific, namely two fifth of the overall working population. According to the study by Asahi.com, the online version of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun, among skilled IT workers under 30 in eight selected Asian countries, only 16% on an average are women. However, for the Philippines and Thailand, the percentage of women workers is 40 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Japanese women rank the last, at a low 8 per cent. Thus, it becomes imperative to involve this large proportion of the labour force in IT and e-commerce, and to utilize the untapped potential of the female population, so as to correct the critical imbalance and bridge the gender digital divide in the demand and supply of IT workers.
The study also indicates that women’s full access to the whole range of benefits ICTs offer has been largely for administrative purposes, for correspondence and international exchange of information. While the introduction of ICT has significantly changed working methods and styles of women’s organisations and their communication patterns, the study concluded that women’s organizations are not benefiting from the full potential of ICTs for development owing to both long-existing and emerging economic, sociocultural and political barriers.
The research shows that there is a definite urban bias in ICT access and use by women’s groups in all countries. Geographical terrain and economic liberalization are factors that largely mediate access and connectivity. The lack of national policies promoting ICT as a tool for development is also a significant factor in many countries surveyed. Poor ICT infrastructure, including outdated telephone lines, long installation periods, overloaded networks; limited competition; high connection and servicing fees are commonly found to be responsible.
The lack of appropriate skills and capacity to operate equipment effectively and utilize ICT tools was another major factor which prevents women’s groups from fully utilizing ICTs. This includes limited knowledge of computer and information management systems, hardware and software installation and maintenance and limited Internet and non-Internet-based skills. For example, very few women’s organizations utilize the web as a networking facility due to lack of skills to effectively utilize the web and its tools, computer illiteracy and intimidation. One prominent issue that emerged from this research is the fact that many women continue to be intimidated by the Internet and its technology, finding it more of an area best left to the men.
The study asserts that “This stems from social conditioning and the fact that many young women are not encouraged to take up science subjects in school or feel that it would be an area in which they could not excel. Women continue to perceive that science and technology are not their forte”. Similarly, limited awareness of the full range of opportunities afforded by ICT other than simple passive access to information; lack of understanding as to the ways in which ICT can be used actively to disseminate data, lobby, participate in and influence decision-making processes, coordinate community activities and collaborate with other NGOs at local and regional levels were cited as barriers facing women’s use of ICT resources.
Across the board, the research respondents identified dominance of English language content and the corresponding lack of multilingual content as a serious limitation of the Internet. The study also showed that many women’s organizations find difficulty getting on-line due to limited financial resources. Costs include ICT-related equipment software purchase, maintenance, training and connectivity. In many countries, people face high access costs due to the presence of few Internet Service Provider (ISP), lack of reliable connections, and limitations of facilities also aggravate the situation. Furthermore, constituents of women’s groups often lack access to the Internet. In addition, financial capacity, which for NGOs is often determined by donor resources, also influences ICT access.
Finally, the study showed that many women’s organizations, continue to use means of communicating and networking that are more personal and direct, such as through workshops, seminars and personal contact since these are the forms that they have been used to. Other popular means of communication between and among women’s groups and individuals are by telephone, fax, newsletters, radio and postal mail. Among all these, radio ranks as the most effective medium of communication. Its reach, accessibility, affordability and use of vernacular languages surpass that of other media.
As mere users of the Internet and IT products, women have globally increased in proportion in the last year. In the United States, women accounted for 50 per cent of users in 2000, compared to 38 per cent of the previous year, and in August 2010 they outpaced men in number and growth rate according to Media Metrix and Jupiter Communications. In Japan, the number of women consumers of ITs has more than doubled in the same period, and in China it has increased by over 80 per cent, growing from 7 per cent to 37 per cent.
Whether at the global or national levels, women are under-represented in all ICT decision-making structures including policy and regulatory institutions, ministries responsible for ICTs, boards and senior management of private ICT companies. In the view of an IT expert, one of the challenges today is that at both the global and national levels, decision-making in ICTs is generally treated as a purely technical area – typically for male experts, where civil society viewpoints are given little or no space, rather than a political domain. “Therefore, representation is important in creating the conditions and regulations that will enable women to maximize their possibilities of benefiting from ICTs, and ensuring the accountability of the institutions that are responsible for developing ICT policies” added an IT expert.
Accordingly, women can gain advantage from IT both as entrepreneurs by using the web to market their products, as well as professionally by marketing their skills as specialists to clients overseas or locally. The shortage of qualified skills has offered women the chance to advance rapidly in the technology sector, particularly in large firms where selection criteria are mostly based on necessary competencies.
Despite this, the Internet, according to the report represent a level playing field for women starting business, particularly. Creating a web site allows women producers and distributors of goods and services to obtain supplies at the best terms possible, and to do business directly with consumers, thus reducing the costs of search, data entry and other paperwork. By reducing transaction costs, the Internet offers them the opportunity to access larger markets and to trade across borders. Women entrepreneurs may be able to benefit from the new grounds of competition brought about by e-commerce, provided they have access to information and the skills and competencies to effectively integrate IT into work processes.
It sounds almost like a cliché to say that the rapid dispersion of the new information and communications technologies is the driving force behind current economic developments and globalization process. The impact of such developments on people’s daily lives is tremendous. No statistical charts or graphs are as compelling an argument as the experience of being able to make a phone call from the Himalayas to the ports of Vanuatu. A recent United Nations Human Development Report correctly points out, “technology is created in response to market pressures – not the needs of poor people, who have little purchasing power”. In most parts of the world therefore, the promise of connecting the majority of the people remains unfulfilled.
Equally eschewing the technology distribution is its sharply uneven diffusion. The whole continent of Africa has less international bandwidth than Sao Paulo while Latin America’s bandwidth is roughly equal to that of Seoul. This pattern of uneven diffusion is also true within countries where telecommunications, as well as other technologies such as electricity, is so much scarcer in rural areas. There is broad concern from both governments and civil society that this global trend will lead to deeper and wider exclusion of the majority of the world’s people from a world economy and society that is rapidly being shaped by technological changes.
In this economic climate, it is urgent to look more closely into the relationship between technology, especially information and communications technology, and development. The United Nations Human Development Report argues that to harness today’s technological transformations as tools for human development requires shifts in national and global public policy. It puts forward “a global call for policy – not charity – to build technological capacity in developing countries”.
Electronic commerce is growing rapidly. The advantages and cost savings offered from dealing on the Internet, especially in business-to-business transactions, have caused e-commerce to develop very fast. Major effects are being felt in the employment and employability of workers. The global demand-supply of specialized IT workers suffers a large gap in the availability of qualified human resources. Both developed and developing economies are in dire need of skilled IT specialists to cope with the demands of the new economy. The unmet demands of the market offer a tremendous opportunity particularly to women. The Web is creating new employment opportunities for skilled IT women workers in technology firms as well as at home where, through teleworking, they have the possibility to work as home-based employees or home-based freelance consultants. Small and medium-sized enterprises are expected to grow significantly over the next few years, as the Internet offers access to wider markets and distribution channels faster and at lower costs.
Women producers and distributors can benefit from substantial cost efficiencies and networking opportunities. It is imperative for women to take advantage of this situation and be equipped for careers at all levels of the IT sector for better economically sustainable livelihoods. Women entrepreneurs need to gear themselves to exploit the potential of e-commerce, and thus be a part of the global production system.