On an equal footing
Themed around gender-based digital equality, International Women’s Day, 2023, offers an opportunity to talk about building up the fast-emerging tech sector in a way that its potential is harnessed optimally. Decades have passed since the need to celebrate Women’s Day was first felt and materialised in the United States of America in 1909. It was after almost seven long decades that the United Nations, in 1975, observed the first International Women’s Day — making it a global phenomenon. From its roots in the labour movement in the early 20th century, the practice of dedicating a day to one-half of the human population has come a long way — reflected in this year’s theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality." That humanity is in a position to seek gender-based equality in one of the most advanced domains of the present generation, is a precious gift from many celebrated and unsung sheroes who blessed the planet Earth with their existence. The feats achieved by women and the contributions made by them to society are compelling the world to go beyond the long-withheld discourse of equity and talk about reverence and gratitude. Despite facing multiple barriers, women, to date, have made great accomplishments in the field of modern technology — be it the devising of early computers or emerging artificial intelligence. Now is the time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in removing the roadblocks so that their immense potential could serve humanity more efficiently. Women are grossly under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and careers. Their inclusivity in tech designs and governance, too, remains dismal. Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, highlighted that women are four times less likely to have advanced ICT skills, make up less than 20 per cent of the tech workforce, and conduct only 12 per cent of AI research. Let alone the participation in the modern tech and AI sectors, there is a sharp disparity between men and women in something as basic as Internet access — particularly in developing South Asian countries. Another major barrier for women to excel in the digital tech sector is the insecurity of the entire ecosystem. Gender Snapshot report, 2022, revealed that in the 51 countries studied, 38 per cent of women had personally experienced online violence. Women, through the centuries, have been their own messiahs — though governments and institutions have preferred to stand by their side, lately. Now that societies and governments are showing keen interest in empowering women, all they need to do is stop disempowering them. Women have always been as powerful and potent as men. Their power was curtailed through a plethora of socio-political, cultural, and economic restraints. If one traces the journey of women gaining their long-overdue foothold in society, or ‘women empowerment’ as some would prefer to call it, it has been all about the removal of the restraints. It is reassuring to see that the wind is blowing in the right direction. From fighting against the evils of the Sati system and child marriage, humanity has come a long way in recognising and criminalising marital rape, emboldening women to call out their harassers under the trend of #MeToo rather than living a life of victimhood and, more importantly, reasserting them as independent individuals they are vis-à-vis being a dependent subject requiring male protection. Human societies the world over have undergone a paradigmatic ideal shift, where gender-based equality, equity and dignity can be fiercely debated. However, when it comes to how things unfold on the ground, there is still a hill to climb. While women have established themselves in a position from where they can confront misogyny and patriarchy, there is still not enough guarantee of their safety once they have done so. The reason is that the deep-seated social institutions of patriarchy and misogyny are still intact, however unwanted, it may sound and seem! The unending flurry of news reports about rape, molestation, domestic violence, and easy acquittal of the accused bears testimony to the fact that the privilege of confronting gender-based atrocities still rests in the hands of a limited few. Economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, though opening gradually, still elude a large section of the female population. What is striking, however, is that the women have been relentless in their pursuit of making an equitable society and world. The United Nations has aptly kept this year’s theme to be “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality." Thanks to long-prevailing gender inequality, humanity has not lived up to its potential. Now is the time to ensure that the emerging digital tech sector is accessible and safe for all. On this International Women’s Day, congratulations to the entire humanity that women are defying all odds to make the world a better place to live in.