Women in the Information Society: Participating in development and ICT policy

One of the main complaints by women during the discussions at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) focused on the need for more women to participate in decisions about the development of the Internet, and the discussion and implementation of public policies aimed at building an inclusive information society, without discrimination based on gender or any other grounds.

In an article about WSIS, describing the achievements of women activists during both phases of the summit, Malaysian researcher Jac SM Kee gathers the fruit of strong lobbying efforts carried out by the Gender Caucus and by the informal coalition of NGOs: the Working Group on Gender Strategies. The work done in the summit’s sessions, in individual conversations with official delegations, and in long discussions which had no timetables, with consultants and others, led to the final documents which reflect the efforts of activists in redacting complete paragraphs of the Geneva Declaration of Principles and the Geneva Plan of Action, and the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda.

Ten years after this painstaking process, it is interesting to consider the questions that Kee asks at the end of her article: ‘Can a sentence here or there change the significant barriers and complex challenges that are involved in gender inequalities in the fabric of the so-called information society? Can the transformation of social relations be reduced to disputes over a text, or the decision to add or remove a parentheses?’

Strong discussions took place in Latin America and the Caribbean about government plans for the information society, known as eLAC, which, since 2005 have guided the joint action of governments in the region to implement an information society in the region, to facilitate their economic development and integration into globalized markets and societies.

First, civil society should have strengthened its lobbying actions, its defense, and advocacy of its rights in the information society, to be considered as a valid interlocutor in a space that needed to consist of be multistakeholder work and discussion, to achieve a real inclusion in the region. Then the activism of women raised the need to permeate action plans and decision-making processes with the gender perspective, in order to achieve equity and equality of opportunity for women in the construction of an information society that would both be inclusive, and democratise gender relations as well.

The Gender Working Group which was established in the Second Ministerial Conference on the Information Society in El Salvador in 2008, and was confirmed at the Third Ministerial Conference in Lima, in 2010, consolidated in these years of work, a presence, and specific contributions in meetings and seminars, with research on gender and labor issues, in technology areas in the region, and also in texts adopted at other conferences, such as the XI Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Together with government delegations, a position was taken, which achieved a result: an entire section of the text of the Brasilia Consensus be devoted to the implementation of transformative public policies for an increase in women's access to the use and appropriation of information and communication technologies, with emphasis on the inclusion of rural and indigenous women.

But, as Kee asks, should we be content with the inclusion of the theme in statements and action plans? It is not enough to achieve the necessary changes in gender relations in the information society. It is important to consider the growing number of women participating in discussion processes about the information society, such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), now, not as listeners or silent participants, but having both presence and voice on panels, in plenary sessions and in discussion groups.

In a study by DiploFoundation on the participation of women in the Internet Governance Forum since the first IGF in 2006 until now, it is argued that even though in the beginning the IGF had a notably higher male participation to women, ‘as the IGF matures, a marked trend towards gender balance comes to light’.

In 2006, 21.98% of the participants were women, while in 2012 this figure reached 35.20% of the audience. Not only did the number of women increase, so also did their participation as panelists, or in moderating sessions and working groups as well. From 14.48% of women who played these roles in 2006, in 2012 this percentage increased to 33.39%. In other words, there are more women using an authoritative voice to express and comment on the development of the information society in its various aspects.

Going into more detail, DiploFoundation reports the number of words spoken by men and women in the IGF sessions. Until 2010, men talked more, but in the last two years, men and women almost matched. While women are still less involved with giving presentations, proportionally they speak more. From 62/38 in favor of men in 2006, this proportion increased almost to a balance, to 52/48 in 2012. The appropriation of the floor by women evidences changes in gender relations, with the result that the words spoken both by women and by men are recognized and heard.

But not only in the forums is the participation of women growing. In spaces such as ICANN, more women are beginning to participate in discussions and take over areas of coordination. Fatima Cambronero, lawyer and director of Ageia Densi, said in an interview on the 25 years of the information society in LAC, that ‘more and more women with technical and leadership skills are entering the ICANN environment. When women take the lead in this type of organization, they are usually very strong and organized in what they do, so they are respected.’ ICANN grants fellowships to facilitate participation in policy processes and always considers women as candidates, which opens interesting opportunities for many women who could not otherwise attend these meetings.

An increased presence of women can also be seen in the activities of the Latin American pre-IGF meetings, where women also take center stage organising sessions, moderating working groups or making presentations. In this regard, Argentinian engineer, Olga Cavalli, an expert on issues of Internet governance, and an official delegate of her country in international meetings on the subject, when interviewed, expressed that ‘an active policy of governments for the inclusion of women in the field of ICT, promoting, for example, certain technical courses to attract students’, is hoped for. For Cavalli, engineering offers great job opportunities with international reach for women. She added that ‘it has been demonstrated that diversity in working groups, men, women and people of different ages, creates a better product, and is better for the customer. In Latin America, this has yet to be learned.’


About the author: 

Dafne Sabanes Plou

Dafne is a social communicator, she works at the Rights for Women Program in the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). She is a consultant for the project 25 years of the Information Society in Latin America & the Caribbean.