Technology must be part of solution for empowering rural women and girls

United Nations addresses challenges to create and expand economic opportunity for rural women and girls, but the world must commit to technology-driven solutions. And as we face increasing cyberthreats, shouldn’t women be part of the solution?

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Given my upbringing in the Australian bush, I have long been mindful of the many challenges faced by rural women and girls. Nonetheless, the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women provided a comprehensive and jarring view of just how many systemic challenges demand the world’s collective commitment to address.  

As the discussions unfolded, one common denominator to mitigating many of the challenges emerged – technology.

My background in the technology industry – as well as my involvement in ISACA’s SheLeadsTech program – led to my great honor of serving as part of the official Australian Government delegation to the Commission, which took place last month at UN headquarters in New York. The Commission had the ambitious charge of reaching consensus on conclusions to determine how to empower rural women and girls by enhancing economic opportunity, education, personal safety and a range of other critical areas that factor heavily into quality of life.

While technology cannot solve all of society’s problems, there is no other force in the 21st century as equipped to make meaningful impacts in all these areas. That is why one of the Commission’s most important conclusions was emphasizing the importance of investing in infrastructure that expands information and communications technology in rural areas. In large swaths of the world, technology-driven activities that many of us take for granted – such as the ability to take an online course or watch a training video – are not feasible for women and girls. That level of isolation widens the gulf of opportunity as digital transformation reshapes the global economy at a staggering pace. Being cut off from technology can have even more dire consequences – alarmingly, UN statistics show that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. At a minimum, women and girls must have the ability to place emergency phone calls and report crimes to protect themselves and their loved ones. 

Shortage of women in technology is a systemic problem

When it comes to expanding economic opportunity for rural women and girls, the technology workforce itself needs to be part of the solution. The need is great. Cyberthreats are rising on the list of the most prominent concerns facing the world according to the Global Risks Report 2018 by the World Economic Forum (WEF), released in January 2018. The report showed that large-scale cyberattacks are now seen as the third most likely global risk for the world over the next ten years, surging from sixth place in the survey’s previous edition. Only extreme weather events and natural disasters are ranked higher.

Every year in the US, 40,000 jobs for information security analysts go unfilled, and employers are struggling to fill 200,000 other cybersecurity related roles, according to cybersecurity data tool CyberSeek. And for every 10 cybersecurity job ads that appear on careers site Indeed, only seven people even click on one of the ads, let alone apply.  Fields such as cybersecurity and governance of information and technology are in urgent need of more qualified professionals, largely because of a shortage of women in those professions.

I can certainly attest, having been the lone woman at more conference sessions and client engagements than I can recall. The underrepresentation of women in the technology workforce – particularly in cybersecurity – is a systemic problem that will require the activation of global coalitions, one of the pillars of the SheLeadsTech program. I’ve never been more optimistic about the appetite to forge these coalitions based on the dialogue that took place throughout the session in New York.

These collaborations should also take place at the enterprise level, with organizations and professional associations sharing best practices of how to encourage more women to join and remain part of the technology workforce. ISACA’s recently released State of Cybersecurity 2018 research underscores how influential proactive enterprise attention can be. Among survey respondents from enterprises that do not have diversity programs specifically supporting gender equality, only 36 percent of women believe that they are offered the same career opportunities as men, compared to 73 percent of male respondents (a 37-point gap). Among respondents from enterprises that do have diversity programs, that gap was only 10 points, with 77 percent of women believing they have the same opportunities for career advancement as their male colleagues.

Arriving at a roadmap to unleash potential of technology

When the Commission began, it was difficult for me to envision how we were going to meet our objectives in less than two weeks’ time. With 170 UN member-states taking part in the proceedings – representing countries with distinct cultures, economies and political systems, just to name a few of the variables – finding common ground so many weighty challenges faced by rural women seemed like a Herculean task. As the session unfolded, there were times when reaching consensus on many of these topics seemed near impossible. But in mustering the required level of resolve, flexibility and persistence, the Commission arrived at a roadmap of what the empowerment of rural women and girls – with emphasis on unleashing the positive potential of technology – would look like.

Too many generations of women have been denied the same basic opportunities as men, and this inequity is especially pronounced in rural areas that have not kept pace with the technology-driven advancements that are increasingly essential to achieve prosperity. The conclusions outlined by the Commission provide strong guidance for governments, civil society, advocacy groups and enterprises alike to take meaningful steps forward in the near future. It is up to all of us to recognize the urgency of the moment and ensure we are not leaving rural women and girls behind as technology propels society forward.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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