By Prof Dr Zaidatun Tasir
Digital technology is a great means in modern society as we use it to perform almost everything. However, not everyone has the privilege to transform their lives through technology.
Recent data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report on ICT Facts and Figures revealed that the proportion of girls and women experiencing internet access and use lies at 48 per cent, compared to 52 per cent of boys and men, across international boundaries. This just means that globally, there are billions of girls and women who are unable to reap the benefits of the technologies to connect with the rest of the world for basic education and work purposes.
Studies pertaining to the utilisation of ICT among women and girls are not something new. Major research published in the last decade concludes that girls and women are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning through the aid of computer-assisted software. The root cause of the digital divide, which has been affirmed through many reports, boils down to the stereotype that computers are toys for boys.
Additionally, the hurdles for women’s access to ICT have also been found in social, economic and cultural factors, such as lack of self-confidence and proper education, heavy domestic responsibilities, and computer anxiety. The general public dilemma also makes the path to computer efficiency even more challenging for girls and women and the poor.
Under the education context, signs of the digital gender divide can be felt at a global level through three main moments – when girls and women take fewer technology classes in high school, when girls and women are far less likely to graduate with degrees in IT fields and when girls and women enjoy interacting with computers less than boys and men do. As a result, we are in jeopardy of losing the talent of girls and women as contributors to science, technology, and the arts because the benefits that technology provides are proportionately greater for boys and men.
In Malaysia, women make up only 35 per cent of the technology workforce. There is much potential for women to thrive in the technology sector as a result of their high soft skill aptitude, particularly in the areas of creativity, effective communication and problem-solving skills. In order to capitalise on their strengths, and to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be more opportunities and support systems to draw more girls and women to the tech industry, especially as ICT is viewed as an enabler of economic growth.
Armed with this knowledge, they will be able to gain the opportunity to start new businesses, obtain better-paid jobs and access proper education as well as health and financial services. Women tech leaders such as Cheryl Yeoh, Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, Surina Shukri, Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah and Catherine Lian and others have proven that they are equally capable in the field and have broken into new and emerging tech areas that are often dominated by men. Even in a challenging environment, they have been successful, which is a source of inspiration for aspiring women tech players to explore and challenge themselves to break new ground in the tech sector.
The government, in collaboration with civil society and the private sector, should introduce more intervention programmes that are supported by the private sector to make ICT tools more accessible and affordable to girls/women and improve the knowledge and change gender relationships with technology. This endeavour has some roots in the 10-10 Malaysian Science, Technology, Innovation and Economic (MySTIE) Framework. The potential programmes can dynamically reduce the impact of girls/women inequality in digital technologies through efforts including:
Implementation of a holistic digital technologies curriculum
One of the 10 socio-economic drivers in the 10-10 MySTIE Framework is Education. The future requires for Malaysia to possess a high-quality education system that can prepare the next generation with future-proof skills and competencies to adapt to market demands. The education system needs to provide engaging, innovative and flexible learning while harnessing the sector’s potential as a revenue earner for the country.
By having this curriculum, which encompasses personalised and experiential learning, micro credentials and global online learning, access to ICT among girls/women can be expanded. They might reap many benefits with regards to literacy, computer reassurance, and various cultural and religious taboos through this approach. This curriculum should also be targeted at young girls in order to prepare the future women workforce with skills required in ICT/STEAM careers. Certain gender-sensitive strategies that guide the use of ICTs also need to be established in the curriculum to eradicate the effects of the gender stereotypes issues.
Establishment of open online public platforms
In addition to harnessing the education socio-economic driver in the 10-10 MySTIE Framework, another socio-economic driver that can be utilised is the Business and Financial Services driver. By leveraging on digital connectivity and wireless communication technologies, women can move from traditional business models to highly integrated and connected business models and supply chain.
In providing platforms for women participation, communication, training, engagement, networking and good practices, women can learn, generate income or develop mentoring support from local and international women tech representatives. The platforms could also be a way to raise awareness about digital gender inequality among parents, teachers and the broader community through targeted campaigns. The platforms can also serve to increase girls and women’s confidence and self-esteem, and address issues like privacy, safety, harassment, and violence.
Recognition of women tech leaders
One way of bringing awareness to women tech leaders is through recognitions such as Woman Icon ICT Award. By highlighting women’s achievement, this would allow today’s students to shift their thought process and recognise that women are just as capable as their male counterparts in tech. This is necessary to motivate the next generation to excel in tech sectors.
Provision of scholarships for a degree in IT/STEAM
Specific funding for tech or STEAM subjects will help support women looking to enter one of the many male-dominated career paths by providing educational grants, global outreach etc.
Through these initiatives, girls and women would be able to have better access to the tech sector and will be motivated to join the industry because of their passion for tech. Understanding and acknowledging the magnitude of the digital divide that exists among girls and women is a crucial step towards overcoming it and meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Prof Dr Zaidatun Tasir of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia is a Top Research Scientists Malaysia (TRSM) 2020 recipient.