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MWC 2017

Is Big Data the Secret to Gender Equality?

From Silicon Valley to sub-Saharan Africa, gender equality was on everybody’s agenda at Mobile World Congress 2017. Providing access to connectivity for women and girls is acknowledged as mission-critical to international development, with gender equality the very first of GSMA’s 17 official sustainable development goals (SDGs).

“Including women is essential,” says Mats Granryd, Director General of GSMA. “When women thrive, families and economies thrive.”

During the final keynote of the conference, Girl Effect CEO Farah Ramzan Golant highlighted how simple it can be to start engaging girls in the developing world, and the huge difference it can make. And it all begins with reframing how we see them.

“Adolescent girls living in poverty are the world’s biggest untapped resource,” says Golant. We’re so used to viewing young people in developed countries as a symptom of intergenerational poverty, in need of a handout, when we need to start treating them as assets.

This is the thinking behind TEGA (Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors), a peer-to-peer research tool launched by Girl Effect. “It’s not about the app itself, but what happens when you put it in the hands of a girl,” says Golant. “They go from recipients of aid to agents of change.”

Inspired by the simplicity of apps like Snapchat and PayPal, TEGA turns girls into paid digital researchers; using their phone cameras and simple questionnaires, they uncover unfiltered qualitative insights from hard to reach communities (something an outsider could never do), and in turn become qualified as data gatherers. In addition to creating an economy for girls living in poverty, TEGA is also disrupting the survey game; data is programmatically arranged and available to view in just six hours.

What Girl Effect have found, Golant explains, is that by engaging and activating members of the demographic they are trying to empower, they are now privy to all kinds of invaluable insights which they could never have hoped to achieve through traditional research methods, meaning they can craft better solutions to work towards their ultimate goal of lifting up girls and ending poverty.

Elsewhere at Mobile World Congress, female leaders from across tech and media took to the stage at Accenture’s Women4Tech Summit to discuss the topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and also field concerns that the conversation around gender equality has narrowed to essentially “get girls coding.” While female talent is sorely needed in STEM fields in order to lead to the creation of products and software that serve everybody, Christina Miller, President of Cartoon Network, thinks that the definition should be broadened to STEAM, with an A for Arts.

“It’s not necessarily about the job you’re going to get,” she says, “it’s about creative expression, and giving girls the tools and day-to-day skills to do so through technology.” Girls don’t all have to want to be engineers, the panel agrees; but it should be a completely normalised idea if they do choose to pursue a career in tech. “It’s nice to be treated as a trailblazer,” says Lucy Quist, CEO of Airtel Ghana, “but as women in tech we have to be building highways, so we’re not seen as special any more.”

“Equality is not a women’s issue,” says Emer Timmons, CEO of Brightstar. “It affects us all.” She points out that if gender equality were achieved in the UK this year, it would result in a 10 per cent GDP increase by 2030. It’s a similar story wherever you are in the world; when a girl succeeds, she raises up her family, community and country along with her.

As things currently stand, the World Economic Forum predicts global gender equality will not be a reality until 2095 — four whole generations from now. “I don’t know about you,” says Timmons, “but I don’t want to wait that long.”

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