The digital divide: a report from Latin America

Chapter of the foundation Plan UK’s annual report, “State of the World’s Girls Report 2015”. October 2015.

When I was 11, we learned how to use the Logo operating system in computer classes in Barranquilla. Since I didn’t have a computer at home I had to write out all the calculations manually and I would use pencil drawings and a typewriter to do my homework. We got our first computer at home in 1996. At school it was always the boys who knew most about computers. They were the ones who studied systems engineering. I studied philosophy and visual arts. The closest I came to systems engineering was probably maths, but it depressed me to think that if I studied maths I wouldn’t be attractive and I would end up alone. Of course, that’s being really superficial. Or maybe it isn’t, because the need to feel accepted and loved is no small thing. Perhaps I was just very young at the time and didn’t realise that my own choices were influenced by machista prejudices.

As I grew up I wanted to be a writer and in 2008 I was set on having a column in the El Espectador newspaper (Colombian national daily) and so I started a blog. Every week I would send an article to the paper’s editor and if I didn’t hear anything back, as was normally the case, I would upload the article to my blog. Six months later I got a call from the paper offering me a column. Back then I didn’t know anyone in the industry, but I managed to take my first step in what would turn out to be my whole career thanks to my blog and the amazing connections you can make on the internet. Today I am a journalist and at the same time I have a career in IT. I write opinion columns and try to contribute to public debate. In the modern world much of that debate happens online.

White pages, new voices

Shortly after graduating from university, I came across an apparently unsolvable problem: the publishing world doesn’t publish articles from young people because it doesn’t know who they are, but at the same time, it doesn’t know who they are precisely because they are never published. As a result, national publications, printed or digital, are always from the same celebrated authors, and there is very little room for new talent. In response, I set up Hoja Blanca, (‘White Page’) an online NGO magazine that seeks to give unknown writers the opportunity to publish their work and so keep up a flow of new ideas and fresh voices. Our authors are selected in open calls for contributors and each is assigned an editor-coach who helps them to develop their writing to the best of their ability. We also run training sessions for young people from underprivileged neighbourhoods to create original content, promote freedom of expression and teach critical internet literacy skills.

The magazine encourages the creation of new digital content produced both on and for the internet; it supports pluralism, giving a voice to those who are rarely heard and going beyond the physical barriers and confines of print media. Hoja Blanca has created a safe space for a lot of authors, especially young women from minority groups, who simply don’t have the right contacts to influence debate. By helping these new writers to find a voice and develop their artistic language, the magazine gives them a great start to their working careers. Today we (and when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘we women’, since most of the people involved in this project are women) are proud of having first published more than 150 authors who are now successful in their field.

I think what I love most about this project is that it is non-hierarchical and it doesn’t require your physical presence. Although most of the team lives in Colombia and our offices are in Bogotá and Barranquilla, our bloggers are in countries like China, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, France, Spain, the Netherlands, USA and Argentina. Our group of editors and bloggers coordinate organically and seamlessly, almost in imitation of the way the internet works. There are no advertisements on the site, so our authors are free from the kind of indirect censorship you see in other media; released from the logic of the market and the tyranny of the ‘like’ button.

New technology, old divisions

Latin America is one of the regions in the world where women have the most internet access, although this is still only 36 per cent of women.1 However, what is clear is that technology is increasingly accessible and affordable, and there will soon be infrastructure connecting even the most remote geographical regions. Young women urgently need the tools to enable them to use this new technology in a suitable and safe way.

Like the real world, the internet is not neutral territory, and as the report2 developed for the Beijing +20 conference stresses, girls and young women, while acknowledging the risks the internet poses, need also to seize the opportunities it presents. There is the potential to create new communities, gain new skills, access information, improve their self-confidence, live in safety and participate in democracy as active citizens. It brings also the power to strengthen the capacity of the women’s movement and to challenge the patriarchal nature of the ICT world.

Despite increased visibility online apparent in some of the successful initiatives that have run in recent years and efforts like Feminist Hackathon to promote women on the web, the gender divide persists and this can be clearly seen in the fact that most ICT students and web developers are men.* The new world that is being built is still seen as something created by and for men, whilst women are portrayed as the consumers – not creators – of technology.  

In trying to understand why this is, I spoke to four Latin American women, three who work in technology and a schoolgirl. What do their experiences tell us about the digital divide, and what is being done to close it in Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru?

Lith

“Those are things we say are difficult, so we leave them for men”

Lith is 16 years old and lives with her mother in Rebolo, a working-class barrio (neighbourhood) in the city of Baranquilla in the Caribbean region of Colombia. She goes to school at Don Bosco college, which is run by Salesian priests, and provides primary, secondary and vocational education for young people in the area. Lith says there are three internet cafés in her barrio and they are always full of teenagers and college students. When I ask her how she and her friends have so much access to digital technology, she estimates that eight out of every ten friends have a computer and internet access at home. All her friends have smartphones except her best friend who just lost hers, and now they have to communicate via Facebook and not the normal and more private channel of Whatsapp.

I talk to Lith over Skype during her school break. She connects via the school secretary’s computer. She tells me she spends about three hours every day in front of the computer doing her homework and helping her mum with her work, but that’s not a long time in comparison to her friends. She uses Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram; she has Twitter but hardly ever uses it. She opened an account in Snapchat at one point, but although it’s popular amongst children of her age she didn’t like it and decided to close it. Lith uses social networks to post fun photos and express opinions about politics in her country. She doesn’t think that people should share all kinds of details about their lives on social networks and doesn’t think that they should be used to “let off steam”. It’s clear by what she says that for her there is a big difference between private and public content. She posts most of her photos on Instagram where she has fewer followers, and if she wants more people to see them (including her family) she uploads them on Facebook.

I ask her, “How do you decide whether to add someone as a friend on Facebook?” “It’s very instinctive,” Lith replies. “I add people I know and if I don’t know them, I open their profile page to find out what they are like, what they look like, what they post.” Lith is wary of obscene photos, or photos that don’t look real – photos that are too pretty or perfect – or bad spelling. Generally speaking, she feels she should be as careful online as out on the street: in both cases she is the one who must tell the difference between good and bad and she recognises the importance of feeling supported and trusted by her mother.

Lith considers herself a native of the digital world and thinks that the internet has revolutionised the way we communicate. She doesn’t feel she is being overly monitored when she surfs the internet but she does know about the Snowden case and the ‘chuzadas del DAS’(Department for Security Scandal3), where it came to light in the media how the former national intelligence agency of the Colombian government was spying on journalists and those who opposed ex-President Uribe’s government. She doesn’t know much about programming, but has an advanced Excel class at school where the students designed a programme to count the votes in the elections of the student leaders in every school across Colombia.

For Lith there certainly is a gender difference in the use of technology. For example, she and her mother use the internet to look for hairdos or recipes, and especially to communicate with each other. Lith thinks her male classmates use the internet for gaming and to watch porn. This is backed up by several studies which show that women around the world used the internet much more for socialising and interaction, while men look for diversion and distraction.4

When Lith finishes school she wants to study visual arts or graphic design and that’s why she wants to learn to use Illustrator and Photoshop. She admits that few girls study software engineering and explains why this might be by quoting something she read recently: “It’s all about how girls are brought up and the vision they have about what they want and like in life and what they don’t like and all those things they think are good. Society gives women complexes and that’s why we don’t study maths, science and all those difficult things we think have to be done by men.”

Sorey

“I think they were bringing us up to be secretaries.”

Sorey García is a web developer and university teacher in the city of Medellín in Colombia. She is 32 and has over ten years’ experience in programming. Like Lith, she started using computers at the age of 13 and was hooked from then on. Although she studied in an all-girls school where the closest thing to IT was a typing class, Sorey decided to study programming and had the good fortune of attending a ‘Web Design and Creativity’ workshop in her first semester. She works on the programme ‘Digital Women’ (mujeresdigitales.org), a platform of the Secretary for Gender Equality of the Government of Antioquia, which uses technology to empower women through a combination of journalism, training, technology and politics.

Sorey admits that she never really knew why she decided to study systems engineering, she simply liked the career. Drop-out rates amongst women are high, “there used to be five women in a class of 30 and that seemed okay to me, but now there aren’t even that many.” She also points out that although a lot of women study careers in software, many of them “only study the administrative bit of software programming and don’t do well in the more technical courses. Many women work in database management and others are teachers who have never worked in programming; they teach by the book and you can tell that they’ve never been programmers.

“For men, being a tech geek is really cool, but women have other things to care about.”

According to Sorey, “at 22 or 23, they get married and start to have other priorities; they don’t want to spend all night at work. They want to leave at six in the evening and go home to their children. But men don’t have the same responsibilities. If a man has to stay late at work, he stays late. Working hours in IT can be awful and that’s one of the reasons why women lag behind. It’s a career where you always have to be up to date; you can’t fall behind. I have a lot of women friends who were great programmers but were never prepared to, or had the time, to keep their knowledge up to date; in the end they fell behind and that affected their self-confidence. There are other things out there that put women off: for example, almost all of the teachers are men. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong but something isn’t working because women are not choosing a career in programming.”

“But you’ve done really well,” I say.

“I’m more like a man.” She laughs and then corrects herself: “Not like a man, because I’m me, I’m a woman. What I mean is I have a lot of self-confidence, I like to work late, my passion for programming is greater than anything else. I don’t care about being dressed up or looking pretty. I’m happy travelling all over the place to teach code. I prefer that to going out with someone, or going to a party, or having children. It’s a question of personal choice and priorities.

“There’s a general concern in ‘Digital Women’ that women are not driving technology. Even the application women use on smartphones to monitor their periods was developed by a man. Why don’t women use technology to meet their own needs? Women are being left behind; we aren’t taking part in the construction of the modern world. Men wrote the laws of the old world and they didn’t take any notice of us, and now the same is happening with software.”

Kemly

“We all have to get involved in the solution. That’s the only way to break stereotypes.”

Kemly Camacho, from San José, Costa Rica, is coordinator of the ICT project ‘TIC-as’*. The project is run by the Sulá Bastsú Cooperative (sulabatsu.com) and is supported by the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, which aims to create employment and work experience opportunities in the rural San Carlos area in northern Costa Rica. The ICT project works directly with girls and young women in their communities, encouraging them to enrol in ICT classes and to stay on until they graduate. The aim is to promote women’s leadership in the ICT sector. “We are worried about what we call the 80:20 ratio, which is the men-women ratio in all fields of technology.

“We are working in San Carlos with the entire chain and ecosystem: from the municipal government and National Women’s Institute, to universities, the private sector, university students, schools, boys and girls and their teachers, fathers and mothers,” says Kemly. “Girls face a hostile environment when it comes to technology. And by that I mean that not only is there no incentive for girls to try out technology but rather there are a lot of things that drive them away, like the fact that a lot of girls are caregivers, or have other responsibilities in the home, or are forced by parents or teachers  to adopt other more stereotypical roles. If we don’t work in their immediate surroundings, it will be very difficult to make a real change.”

The ICT programme supports a total of 100 boys and girls in 10 schools. Kemly explains that there is a big difference between the fifth-year girls (aged 10 to 11) and the 12 to 13-year-olds in the year above. “Because the fifth-year girls still experience things as girls and play like girls, they have fewer inhibitions when it comes to trying out technology and are more natural working with computers. But when they start to develop and grow into young women, it’s as if they become conditioned in terms of how they should behave: look pretty, not play so much, be attractive to boys and take on more responsibilities in the home. It’s not that they think that they aren’t able, they know they can do it, but they see that the ICT sector is a very masculine culture and aren’t sure they want to be part of it. At the start of the course the teacher tells the students that they have entered hell and challenges them to see who will make it out the other side. The boys see this as a challenge, whilst the girls ask themselves ‘do I really want to be in this hell?’

That’s why part of the strategy of the ICT project, as well as involving parents and teachers in the process, is about creating university support groups and networks of girls who help the students so they don’t drop out. The project also promotes more flexible timetables for students who are pregnant or are already mothers.

And finally, since there is an even bigger gender divide in rural areas in terms of access and infrastructure, the ICT project promotes the collective use of technology.  “In remote areas, we encourage the girls to work collectively; a computer or mobile phone is used by several girls and we put a stop to individualistic technology and consumption.”

Kemly continues, “whether they live in the town or the countryside, as girls grow up, the people who surround them must realise how ICT represents an opportunity for development; it can mean the chance of a job and a decent income.”

Stephanie

“It was about planting a seed”

Stephanie Frías is a software engineer specialising in software quality control and an active member of different software communities in Peru. She is co-founder of the project Women in Technology Peru (witperu.org) that encourages women to participate in the world of technology.

“In today’s generation you see it less than when I was young, but even today girls of 15 or 16 still ask me if my career is tough.”

Stephanie also runs a project called Coderise (coderise.org), a programme to empower young students to use technology which in the case of WIT Peru, focuses specifically on girls. Coderise is an eight-week programme for school girls up to 17 years old, immersing them in programming: “It’s not so much about hard code but rather logical thinking and algorithms and then we move on to html and creating websites, trying to encourage the girls to use technology to solve problems in a creative way.”

Stephanie says that Coderise4girls has an exercise where the students are asked to present a problem from their community that needs solving. The ideas are subject to a vote; they pick leaders and form work groups. This experience strengthens leadership and fosters a sense of entrepreneurship amongst the girls who learn how to team-build. They are also encouraged to develop a business model. What’s more, the Coderise programme organises role models from the world of technology in Lima to come and talk to the girls and also coaches them on shyness, aversion to change and planning for the future. Parents are supportive of the project and say they have noticed positive changes in their daughters.

“The digital divide has to do with education from childhood. Girls have few role models to identify with when it comes to women software developers; IT careers are presented as difficult, with a lot of numbers and maths, and the pattern repeats itself.”

Stephanie had the good fortune of growing up in a different environment from the majority of girls of her generation. Her father was a fan of technology and there was a computer in the house, which “was like a toy for me”. She was 12 or 13 when her family got connected to the internet for the first time. “There were a lot of restrictions back then, but the idea of having email, of being able to write to someone and getting an answer back fascinated me. Having information at hand instead of going to a library… I thought I had a whole new world at my fingertips.”

Stephanie doesn’t think that working hours have to be so heavy in a programming career. “It’s the same in any project you take on; there will be critical stages when you have to invest more time and stay up all night working, but it shouldn’t always be like that, not only in technology but in any field.”

The drop-out of many women who decide to devote themselves to their children she sees as a structural inequality. The responsibilities of parenting are not shared by men and, as she says, “That’s not something exclusive to systems engineering; it affects every profession.”

Not just a man’s world

There are initiatives taking place right across Latin America to incorporate women in information technology and to demonstrate that it is not just a man’s world. The reason why girls and women decide to turn their back on technology are complex: prejudices, specific sets of values and traditional gender roles all come into play and make women think that programming is a hostile and difficult field of work. This situation doesn’t have anything to do with technology in itself, nor with girls being essentially more or less able in programming or maths than boys. It is more to do with a machista environment that discourages girls from participating in a whole number of different fields, including, and perhaps especially, technology.

Human history, culture and knowledge are formed by a body of content that defines the way we see the world. Traditionally, history has been written by the privileged few and large swathes of the population are marginalised. They don’t produce content and therefore don’t influence the creation of culture. Even though these groups have freedom of expression they don’t exercise it, and that perpetuates and reinforces the same patterns that keep the same groups in power and reproduces the same inequalities and injustices. I think that women who are in the public eye and have access to media are obliged to take back space on the internet for women and girls, for minorities and historically excluded groups. Only with this kind of conscientious effort can we build a virtual space that is less hostile and alien to women and one that is truly inclusive.

The internet opened the door to my career, but on the way I’ve also personally experienced online bullying, constant troll attacks, attempts at smear campaigns and aggressive comments. The internet can be as mean as it is kind. In 2013 in the city of Medellín, for example, 12-year-old virgins were being auctioned off on a web page using PIN numbers. Reporting on stories like this I’ve learnt that the vulnerabilities of the real world, the violence and the machismo, extend into the virtual world. The same old predators who prowl for prey and engage in human trafficking have a powerful presence on social media; inadequate digital security and data protection practices, plus not being aware enough of the dangers, can leave girls exposed and vulnerable.

But, as girls and young women, we must not settle for being ‘cyber victims’, we must become ‘cybernauts’ and the hostility of the internet, instead of intimidating us, should make more of us take up space on the web. Seizing ownership of technology is an important way to struggle and become empowered. Digital media can be about communication, solidarity, diversity, advocacy and defending girls’ and women’s rights.

The world today and tomorrow is being built by zeros and ones and we are at a decisive point where women, and especially girls, can play an active and creative role in the present and future. It’s up to everyone in all walks of life, from the rural to the urban, in the virtual and the physical world, to create a real equality where gender doesn’t lead to exclusion but to renewed creativity, based on diversity of experience.

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