Q&A  | 

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, ITU Director, on the Digital Gender Gap

"We are leaving the development of our future to an extremely narrow demographic."

Tags: 'International Telecommunication Union' 'UNESCO' 'Unión Internacional de Telecomunicaciones'


Reading Time: 8 minutes

Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the Director of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) Telecommunication Development Bureau. She is a strategic leader with 30 years of high-level experience in international and inter-governmental relations and a long history of success in policy and strategy development, analysis and execution. She has advised governments from around the world on policy and regulatory issues, and is a regular presenter at high-level international forums and summits. Prior to joining ITU, Ms Bogdan-Martin was a Telecommunications Policy Specialist in the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), US Department of Commerce.

She holds a Master’s degree in International Communications Policy from American University in Washington, DC, post-graduate certification in Strategies for Leadership from the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, and is certified in Accountability and Ethics by the United Nations Leaders Programme.

She is an affiliate of the Harvard University Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and a Generation Unlimited Champion. She serves on a number of advisory bodies, including the Geneva-Tsinghua Initiative, is Co-Chair of the United Nations Strategic Planning Group, Chair of the Academic Council for the Swiss Network for International Studies, and a member of the Board of Governors of the UN Staff College. She is also an amateur radio operator.

She is married with four children.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

As Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, my mandate is to help our 193 Member States leverage the power of digital technologies as a driver of economic and social development. It’s a big challenge, with a broad field of action – but it is a vitally important one for the future of our planet, and its people.

Of all of humankind’s many extraordinary inventions and innovations, I believe information and communication technologies have the greatest potential to dramatically transform lives, particularly in the world’s poorest countries.

Through the power of digital we can bring education to children in isolated communities, health to people who live far from a traditional clinic, financial services to the estimated two billion people still without a bank account. And through emerging technologies like AI, advanced image processing and voice-driven interfaces, digital platforms are finally beginning to make real inroads in areas like agriculture, which could really revolutionize the lives of communities in poorer nations.

The scope of my Bureau’s activities covers everything from data gathering and analysis, to assistance in setting up “smart village’ projects like our multistakeholder partnership in Niger, to e-health projects with the WHO and other partners, to digital inclusion and training initiatives, like Girls in ICT Day or our new Digital Transformation Centres initiative with private-sector partner Cisco. We also help countries with capacity building in areas like cybersecurity and regulatory reform. It’s a very large remit!

What's the impact of the digital gender gap on women's lives?

The digital gender divide in developing countries is a very urgent problem, because women are so often the key to other kinds of social transformation – we see for example, that women’s role in the education, health and care of family members is absolutely vital, and of course women and girls also perform most of the agricultural work in subsistence communities.

In more developed nations, women’s access to technology is less of a problem, but on the other hand, we’re grappling with a chronic lack of young women opting for technology careers. This is a concern on many fronts – women are missing out on the enormous opportunities for well-paid work in an exciting and fast growing field; tech is being developed without women’s input, which means it all too often fails to meet women’s needs or inadvertently exacerbates existing gender divides; and women’s absence from the tech sector is resulting in a lack of qualified tech professionals, which in turn means the industry itself is being hampered by slower growth rates.

ITU’s most recent statistics show that, globally, the proportion of men using the Internet (58%) is substantially higher than the proportion of women (48%). And while the gap has been shrinking in the Americas, CIS countries and Europe, in other parts of the world – the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa – it has actually been growing. Most worrying of all, that gap is especially large in developing countries, and especially in the world’s 47 Least Developed Countries.

Our figures show that in LDCs, only 1 in 7 women is using the Internet compared with 1 in 5 men.

The need to combat this trend is what prompted me to join with partners UN Women, the GSMA and the International Trade Commission to found the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age back in 2016. EQUALS fights the problem on three fronts, through dedicated Coalitions tacking Access, Skills and Leadership, and now boasts over 100 partner organizations around the world.

An article recently published by The Lancet stated that “experience from past outbreaks shows the importance of incorporating a gender analysis into preparedness and response efforts to improve the effectiveness of health interventions”. How does the digital gender affect women in the current lockdown and pandemic situation?

We know that women undertake most of the care activities in the home related to elderly family members, that they bear more of the burden when it comes to children’s education, and that they also comprise the majority of healthcare workers. That means they are not only struggling with extreme working conditions including very long hours, but that they are disproportionately at risk of infection.

Out in the wider workforce, women are also disproportionately employed in the service industries and the informal sector, which are amongst those hardest-hit by the measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

They are also paid less, and so more economically fragile, and they are most often the ones doing additional unpaid care work. We’ve also seen alarming reports of significant rises in domestic violence in many countries during the lockdown period.

The WHO notes that health workers are the beating heart of every health system and the majority – 70% – are women. They can be the first to identify the outbreak of new or known pathogens. Nevertheless, they are under-represented in the health tech related industry. Does this gap affect our capabilities to fight pandemics?

I think diversity is always a good thing in every sector, and every team – not just gender diversity, but ethnic, cultural, linguistic, too.

It’s important to remember that we have some extraordinary women scientists working in the field of biotech and medical research – one good example is Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who were instrumental in pioneering the breakthrough CRISPR gene editing process.

But it’s also true that women are generally under-represented. At ITU, one of the things we try to do through our Girls in ICT Day annual celebration – held every year on the fourth Thursday in April – and our work with EQUALS, is to throw the spotlight on some of these amazing role models. The EQUALS in Tech Awards, which are held towards the end of every year, are all about acknowledging and publicizing outstanding achievements in digital technologies. I think we simply can’t do enough to try to get girls and young women excited about this industry, and about their potential role in it.

Is intervention by governments needed in order to tackle the digital gender gap, or can the market regulate itself in this area?

The market alone won’t fix this issue – that much is very clear. I am most encouraged that we are seeing a steadily growing momentum around this issue, and in particular much more active involvement from some of our industry partners. But in the end, the most important steps will be taken in the policy making arena, through the actions of the ICT regulatory community and the weight accorded to the issue by government ministries.

Collaboration will be key to solving this multi-faceted problem – we need a concerted multistakeholder effort, involving government, the tech sector, schools and academia, civil society, and of course, the international community.

What are the causes of the digital gender gap? Is it just evidence of the lack of equality in society as a whole?

We do see a strong correlation between women’s access to education and their access to technology. In short, in countries where women’s rights are not prioritized, their ability to access digital devices and platforms tends also to be compromised.

In some countries, there remain substantial cultural barriers to women’s access, and we need to work more closely with these countries to make our case for why better access for women would benefit everyone.

One area recently identified by the GSMA in its new Connected Women report on the mobile sector, is women’s access to smartphones.

With mobile now the principal means of accessing the internet in all developing countries, smartphone use – and especially ownership – can be a truly transformative force in the lives of women, bringing them personalized health information, educational resources, commercial opportunities, access to mobile money, and new services like agricultural information platforms that can help enormously in combatting pests and optimizing crop yields.

Can you give us an example of gendered biased technology?

There are plenty, but let’s focus on AI, because there are some real challenges in this emerging and increasingly influential technology that we can’t afford to ignore. One very obvious example is the prevalence of female-gendered digital assistants.

An EQUALS report from last year led by UNESCO entitled I’d Blush If I Could argued that female-voiced digital assistants are perpetuating sexist stereotypes. Right now, all four main digital assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant – are voiced by women as the default setting.

UK tech guru Martha Lane-Fox has questioned what impact it has on children to hear subservient female voices, often being routinely abused by their human ‘masters’. And the UNESCO team also noted that sexually suggestive remarks to these assistants were treated differently if they came from a human male or human female, with men’s comments being treated with more tolerance and even humour.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Just recently , an independent team of linguists, technologists, and sound designers created a non-gendered assistant, called ‘Q’. Their aim was to end gender bias and encourage “more inclusivity in voice technology.”

Why did none of the big tech companies pursue this approach? One answer is surely the lack of diversity in tech teams. It’s one of the issues the EQUALS Global Partnership was set up to address.

Melinda Gates has noted that “the number of women in the AI sector is so small it’s unbelievable”. And we don’t even know how many AI researchers are people of colour, from diverse cultural backgrounds, or living with a disability.

The point is that we are leaving the development of our future to an extremely narrow demographic – and all the evidence indicates that this cannot be a good way forward.

Another important issue is the gender bias already inherent in the data AI is increasingly using to make choices for us. In her book Invisible Women Caroline Criado Perez looks at the huge gender data gaps in areas from healthcare and town planning to agriculture, parliament, financial services, peace negotiations and humanitarian response.

She details many examples of gender bias. To give just a few:

  • Algorithmic scanning of CVs by recruitment companies can routinely rule out female candidates.
  • In some languages, Google Translate assigns a gender to neutral pronouns that results in, for example, HE is a doctor / SHE is a nurse.
  • Google’s speech recognition software is 70% more likely to recognize male than female speech.
  • In the Ebola crisis the failure to include women in response teams led to the distribution of food but NOT water or fuel, so that women routinely had to leave quarantine zones, at risk of their lives and of perpetuating the spread of the epidemic.

In the end, AI will only be as good as the teams that design it, and the data it draws on. If today’s tech reinforces gender biases, it is because the data being used in machine learning training is based upon human behaviour. Robots are only sexist because the humans they learn from are.


Finally, do you experience the digital gender gap in your everyday life?

I have been hugely privileged in coming from a very egalitarian family, and spending most of my career in an international organization where awareness of these kinds of issues is well-accepted.

Nevertheless, over the course of my 30-year career I’ve certainly seen talented female colleagues overlooked for promotion, female experts whose opinions were disregarded in meetings – all the usual things women in the workforce still complain about.

When I achieved a senior management role in my own organization, as Chief of our Strategic Planning Department, I took active steps to remedy our traditional male-dominated culture by establishing an internal Gender Task Force, initiating training sessions on women’s leadership for staff and Member State delegates to ITU meetings, and working with teams like our Human Resources department to overhaul out-dated gender-biased procedures.

When I left my position as department chief, I had achieved an entirely gender balanced and very talented management team.

While we haven’t entirely solved the professional gender problem in my organization – but we have made substantial progress. I hope the fact that I myself took the decision to run for elected office – and subsequently became the first-ever woman to hold one of ITU’s five top posts – will greatly encourage other women to follow in my footsteps. Breaking down barriers can seem a very slow process – but then you suddenly look up and see that the landscape around you has changed dramatically. That’s an incredibly rewarding feeling.