Nancy Hafkin on Gender and IT

Nancy Hafkin is a pioneer in the field of ICT for Development, working on issues of information technology in the developing world since 1980. Her work with the Association for Progressive Communication in the 1990s helped bring email connectivity to nations otherwise unconnected to the Internet. One of the most prestigious prizes in the ICT4D field is named in her honor and given each year by APC.

Hafkin has recently focused her work on issues of gender in ICT for Development, co-editing a book titled “Cinderella or Cyberella: Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society”. Speaking over lunch today at Berkman, she acknowledges, “it’s a bit hokey, the title,” but explains that there’s a real point to it: “Cinderella works in the basement of the knowledge society – if she works at all – and waits for her Prince to decide the benefits she’ll receive.” Hafkin wants a future of Cyberellas, empowered women who have the ability to devise new uses for information technology, find and create information and act as designers, not just users.

Historically, scholars of ICT haven’t paid much attention to gender barriers in the dissemination of technology. Hafkin believes this is, in part, because there’s an (incorrect) assumption that technology is gender neutral – give people access to technology and it will spread equally to men and women. This doesn’t appear to be the case, from the small bit of data available.

In 2003, for the first time, ITU started breaking down some statistics on Internet penetration by gender – prior to that, the only time gender came into ITU statistics was in terms of employment in telecommunication (i.e., how many women are telephone operators in Dubai…) The data so far is pretty incomplete – it exists for only 39 countries, only one of which is in sub-Saharan Africa and includes no Arab League nations. But it so far shows no correlation between internet penetration and gender equity in Internet use. In other words, in the US and Canada, there’s widespread internet use and basically equal use between men and women. But in many other nations – including the UK, France and the Netherlands – there’s high levels of Internet use, but strong disparities between men and women in net use. Italy has as large a gap between male and female Internet use as does Kyrgystan, which has a much lower level of net adoption.

This disparity, Nancy argues, demonstrates that technology is not, neccesarily, gender neutral – if it were, we’d see gender equity in all high-net use countries. But access to technology isn’t gender neutral – there’s a complex set of factors that make it less likely that women will get access to technology. In most developing nations, access to the Internet is from public centers, not from the home. In some nations, cybercafes end up being little more than digital pornography shops. (I’ve seen this in countries with as low connectivity as Rwanda, where one popular cybercafe mounts monitors flush with the surface of tables, so that users surfing pornography can have more privacy…) Because of the poor reputation of cybercafes, parents discourage girls from going to cybercafes.

The factors can be even more subtle. Nancy tells the story of one school where seats in a computer lab were given to the students who arrived first. The boys ran from the classroom to get seats, but the girls – who’d been trained to be polite and ladylike – walked and didn’t get a single seat. She points us towards a video produced by WOUGNET (Women of Uganda Net) which documents some of these subtle factors.

There’s some discouraging research in Zambia and also in Francophone West Africa that suggests that the spread of information technology can be connected to a rise in domestic violence. Some men are threatened by women gaining access to mobile phones and net connections, asking whether women are accessing these technologies to meet other men. But she strongly believes that access to information technology for women is key in realizing Amartya Sen’s vision of “development as freedom”, an increase in economic circumstances that open more choices in the lives of poor people.

Because there’s so little information on gender and ICT, Hafkin is seeking funding to do a set of country studies. I ended up suggesting the Philippines, where some middle-class women are finding themselves using cutting edge videoconferencing technology to stay in touch with family members who live and work abroad. Hafkin observed that the Philippines has a very high level of gender equity in Internet usage – it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between the two.

Rebecca asks a good question based on an example Hafkin gave of a Ugandan grandmother who became a cyberadvocate in her village, travelling with a solar-powered laptop to show a Luganda-language literacy CD-ROM – Rebecca wonders whether there have been any programs designed to fiscally empower grandmothers. To a certain extent, Grameen Phone/Village Phone works on this model, and Hafkin notes that many Internet kiosks in India are women-run and owned.

My colleagues have excellent notes from this lecture as well:
David Weinberger
Rebecca MacKinnon
J Baumga

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8 Responses to Nancy Hafkin on Gender and IT

  1. White Raven says:

    Sounds like gender issues in ICT are an important issue to be addressed. As a student of computer engineering, the inequality in interest in pursuing design and development roles in computing is obvious. Our class of over 100 has fewer than 20 females.

    It sounds like the issue in developing countries is not technology, by design, but the way the technology is implemented, such as the way cybercafes cater to high privacy audience, and the rules governing first-come-first-serve computer access in schools. Looks like the next steps will be trying to evoke change in the ways in which technology is presented, and the rules governing fair access, then using these changes to advertise a more positive, gender neutral perception of technology.

  2. Jim Lance says:

    Dear Ethan:

    My heart is somewhat to the north of Accra (well north in fact, closer to Bolgatanga). It was a pleasure listening to you and your colleagues at Nancy’s talk yesterday.

    I was particularly struck by your question on culture as I had rather similar musings going through my mind during her presentation. But I was also struck by what for me were the implicit linkages between the neoliberal economic agenda (e.g., the Washington Consensus) and the “knowledge society.” I found it interesting indeed that Nancy mentioned Yunus as I had just come back from the Microcredit Summit conference in Halifax that was basically a Yunus and the Grameen model love-fest. I have always felt ambivalent about microfinance and microcredit wondering whether such programs do in fact alleviate poverty. More to the point, I wonder about the social and cultural implications of microfinance programs that claim to “empower” poorer clients, many of whom are women. For one, while Yunus maitains that credit should be a basic human right, what many of these programs tend to advocate is a rather paradoxical position of “empowerment through debt.” Second, these programs are increasingly linked to international finance capital (side observation: one of the sponsors of the Microcredit Summit was Monsanto Fund). Third, and germane to your questions about culture, these programs necessitate a certain kind of market and entrepreneurial behavior that political economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman regard as essential for the operation of a “modern” free market economy. While many (myself included) have been indoctrinated by econ classes that discuss the operation of the market as a given and “natural” force (akin to the revolutions of the planets or evolution), the market is very much a social and ideological construction. Admittedly much may be gained by encouraging the supposed efficiencies and competitiveness of participation in a market economy (no matter how small), there is much that becomes excluded and marginalized and devalued, to wit: cultural, social and other networks that are superfluous to the operations of this kind of market formation. In essence what is being transformed and/or dismissed are competing notions of value and valuation as individuals, resources and productivity become vehicles for capital accumulation. Marx observes this process in Kapital when he talks of primtive accumulation and the inherent violence attending capitalist transformations of societies.

    When Nancy talked about the “knowledge society” I had similar thoughts about value, valuation and violence and what forms indigenous forms of knowledge and practices may be transformed and/or excluded through celebration of the kinds of knowledge ICTs can bring or demand from their users/beneficiaries. It was alarming, but perhaps not surprising given the linkages I am suggesting, to hear how Internet access has increased violence against women. Could this be a form of “primitive accumulation” transferred to the knowledge arena? Unvoiced and unexplored are the linkages between the knowledge society and economic programs such as microfinance and microcredit on the one hand, and the overall Fukuyamian vision of the end of history and the triunmph of free market capitalism. Would a triumph of the knowledge society mark in some respects the end of knowledge?

  3. Ethan says:

    Thanks for the interesting responses, folks. White Raven, I think I agree that the issues Nancy raised seemed to be more ones surrounding the design of programs, not ones inherent to the use of information technology. The point she made that was most interesting to me was that there tends to be an assumption that simply by introducing ICT, those design problems are obviated, which is clearly not true.

    Jim, you’re raising some very big questions about development theory, some of which I’m badly qualified to address. I am aware that there’s skepticism about Yunus’s work, but I am also greatly impressed with the transformations I’ve witnessed in African societies due to the introduction of mobile telephony. That, in turn, makes me quite optimistic about the upside of the Village Phone project. I also tend to feel like there’s a healthy view of markets that doesn’t accept them as laws of nature, but does accept the reality that market economies are powerful tools for generating wealth and change, and that accepts that any development effort needs to at least acknowledge the market economy that beneficiaries are living within.

    As for the question about technology and violence – I think it’s important to point out that most of the reports I’ve read aren’t Internet-connected, but linked to mobile phones. The question here is a cultural one as well – the mobile phone (or the Internet) increase the freedom of the person who uses them – it increases their horizons, the possible number of people they can contact, etc. For some men who are used to women being limited to a very small social universe, this is an extremely threatening development. But I think this is less about technology and more about the proliferation of options that these men find threatening.

    As for your Fukayama point – I don’t buy that in the least. The promise – unfulfilled as yet – of the information society is that the producion of knowledge can suddenly be in the hands of anyone who has access to the right tools. This is a revolutionary idea that more closely resembles a creative explosion of knowledge than the end of knowledge…

  4. Pingback: emily’s playground » links for 2006-11-29

  5. Bev Clark says:

    Hello Ethan

    While we’ve tried our best to build ICT capacity in female activists and NGO workers we are still seeing such poor computer skills in both women and men leaving our tertiary institutions because of poor ICT resources in Universities. But we’re still at it.

    On a personal note a few years ago was shortlisted for the Hafkin Prize. I wrote to Nancy this year saying that at the time of our nomination we had just picked up a stray kitten (gorgeous tortoise shell) and we named her Hafkin for “good luck”. We didn’t win but Hafkin continues to be a delight, and everyone comments on her unusual name.

  6. Bev Clark says:


    Thanks for the heads-up on TED – we’ll be sharing this information in our next email newsletter.

  7. That was a great post. I will have to bookmark this site so I can read it later.

  8. Pingback: Women’s Illiteracy in Developing Countries | World Cultures Study Group

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