Information Technology Strategies for the Promotion of Gender Equality
by Andrew Stranieripublished in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Bahá'í Studies Australia, 1996
Society has experienced a revolution in information and communication during the last fifty years. This revolution is likely to continue to impact not only on the administration of the Bahá'í faith, but on the community at large. The argument proposed here asserts that equality of opportunity of women and men is more likely to be achieved if both genders embrace the changes now occurring in communication and information use with similar vigour. Though accurate data is not available there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that currently, men are more actively embracing the emerging trends than women. At worst this trend can lead to an exclusion of the majority of women from Bahá'í administrative roles. At best, current gender inequities will continue well into the next century.
The argument proposed here provides an anecdotal rather than theoretical overview of the way in which the use of information has come to dominate modern decision making in a variety of contexts including the administration of the Bahá'í faith. Features of the new forms of communication characterised by the Internet and World Wide Web will be briefly summarised. A strategy aimed at training large numbers of women on the use of the emerging technologies will be proposed. This strategy, called here the "Pledge System," can be implemented at virtually no expense.
Information in today's society
Correct and timely information provides the basis for an increasing number of decisions across all facets of communal life. This trend is unlikely to abate. Examples of the prevalence of information abound.
To an increasing extent, many decisions made by Bahá'í institutions are likely to be based on the collection of information. While it is impossible to predict with certainty what information will be collected, some broad predictions can be made. Local and National Assemblies of the future may collect the following types of information:
New forms of communication have emerged concurrently with our new appetite for information. The Internet and World Wide Web are communication revolutions not only because they allow people to communicate inexpensively on a global scale but because the type of communication is fundamentally new.
New Age Communication: The Internet
In 1969, the United States Defence forces developed a plan for the communication of computer systems that would still be operative even if one or more computers were not functioning. The plan resulted in inter-linking the computers across the United States in such a way that a message could always get through from any one computer to all others that were working. The network worked so well a number of universities connected. Before long virtually all universities in the developed world, many large corporations and individuals were connected to the Internet. The Internet has grown at a phenomenal rate to the point that there currently are an estimated 20 million users worldwide. (Branwyn 1994)
The Internet allows a new form of communication. This can be illustrated by categorising various forms of communication according to the number and passivity of the originator and receiver of a message. There are three fundamental types of communication: one person to one person, one person to many persons, and many persons to many persons. Three types of mediums: voice, paper and computer provide the physical mechanism for communication to occur. Table 1 illustrates examples of communications categorised by communication type and medium type.
Table 1: Communications categorised by type and medium
The One to One category of communication depicts those interaction sessions where one person sends a message which is received by one person. Often the receiver of a message of this kind will become the sender of a new message in the same session in reply. One to One communications are possible by voice with the use of a telephone or in person if sender and receiver are physically near each other.
The One to Many category of communications describes situations where one person broadcasts a message to many receivers. A conference speaker presents material while everyone listens. A radio or television announcer broadcasts a message while those tuned in receive it. Messages captured on newspaper are read by many people. The One to Many type differs from other types of communication in that the receiver is passive and cannot reply to the sender.
The Many to Many category of communication describes situations where many persons dialogue in the same session. Any one of those persons dialoguing can send a message to the others and any one receiving the message can reply by sending a message back to all the others. A committee meeting or any other group discussion is characteristic of this type of communication.
A Many-Many type communication is essential for active dissemination of information and for vigorous debate. This type of communication is arguably fundamental for modern democracy and for effective international dialogue. Without the Internet, the only mechanism for many-many types of communication is the committee meeting or conference phone. International trade agreements such as GATT are negotiated in a series of meetings that involve global participants. The recent United Nations sponsored Beijing Women's Conference brought together many thousands of delegates into one place for a conference that characterises the many - many type of communication.
The Internet's mailgroups and newsgroups provide a mechanism for computer based implementation of many to many communications. The mailgroup called nur, formed recently on the Internet is a discussion forum for Australian Bahá'í 's. Any member subscribed to nur can send a message which is received by all other members, much as a statement in a committee meeting is heard by all present. Prior to the Internet this type of communication was possible only by conference phone or physically assembling all parties to a dialogue at the same time and location.
A number of Bahá'í communities in the United States have initiated an Internet mailgroup. Local members subscribe to the mailgroup and receive messages from the L.S.A, from other members and from other communities. Such a mailgroup can be used by office bearers to relay correspondence, reports and notification of events to all members of the Assembly and believers in the local community. Any other Assembly or individual may mail messages to the L.S.A using the same mailgroup. This can enhance interaction between Assemblies separated by geographical or time differences and lead to an exchange of ideas and news. Board members can similarly maintain constant contact with many more assemblies than is possible using one to one communication.
Special interest groups and committees within the faith can enhance their contact with each other and with the Bahá'í community by using the Internet. Newsgroups such as soc.religion.bahai on the Internet has been a vibrant forum for the exchange of ideas between any interested person with Internet access. A number of Bahá'í's have already been introduced to the faith through this forum. The Universal House of Justice has recently placed electronic copies of many Bahá'í publications on the Internet for free copying.
The Internet is likely to become an integral means of communication within the faith primarily because it is not merely a new technology that allows us to perform tasks more efficiently, but because it is a fundamentally new way for us to communicate with each other. The use of information is likely to increase because correct and timely information in abundance allows for more effective decisions. In addition to this the continued reliance on information by other organisations, be they governmental, commercial or philanthropic will place pressure on Bahá'í administrators to follow suit.
Women and the new technologies
There is every reason to suspect that more men than women will be exposed to emergent technologies. For the vast majority of people, exposure to technology occurs in the workplace. It is the workplace that often demands that computer skills be acquired and it is the workplace that organises for the acquisition of those skills. The participation of women in the workforce varies across professions but is generally lower than the workforce participation of men. This factor alone accounts for the exposure of fewer women to technologies than men.
Cultural factors bias men toward a familiarity with mechanical devices. Fixing the family car, changing tap washers, changing fuses are household roles predominantly performed by men. In this light, manipulating a computing device can most easily be regarded as a feat to be undertaken by men. Attitudes can easily prevail that lead women to regard computers as necessary evils, best understood and tackled by the mechanically minded men.
Learning strategies that best suit the acquisition of technological knowledge favour behaviours that men are encouraged to display. To become proficient in the use of computer technologies requires that time be spent exploring and experimenting with hardware and software. New programs are sourced, trialled, rejected and modified. Many hours are spent tinkering with programs. Software is installed and de-installed. Hardware is dismantled and reassembled. The contention here is that this ad-hoc, 'hacker' style of learning is encouraged in men to a far greater extent than it is in women. Consequently men can display an enthusiasm for emergent technologies which often escapes many women.
If the arguments above are accepted, the pressing question becomes one of determining how technological imbalances between the genders can be addressed. How can women, as a whole embrace new technologies if they are not present in the workplace, are unlikely to become 'mechanical' and avoid 'hacking' as a learning strategy ?
Formal classes in emergent technologies have serious drawbacks and are not the ideal forum for conveying technological skills to students. Formal classes are very expensive and can only be run in well equipped computer classrooms. Formal classes will be of very little use unless the skills learnt can be continuously practiced. Anyone who has undertaken a series of word processing classes will admit to forgetting how to perform sophisticated tasks such as mail merging or printing to encapsulated postscript files unless this feature is required and practiced frequently.
Formal classes are exceedingly stressful for instructors. Instructors cannot explain broad concepts verbally or graphically because the vast majority of computer-based skills are learnt by practical exercises. To take an extreme example, the only way to learn to type is to type. Teaching is also made difficult for instructors because students invariably progress at vastly different rates in computer related skills.
If tuition in a classroom setting is not suitable for the acquisition of skills in the emergent technologies, what is suitable ? Personalised interaction on a one to one basis preferably in the comfort and security of the student's home has a great many advantages over classroom tuition. A mentor can direct tuition specifically to the needs, abilities and aspirations of the student in a one to one interaction to an extent that is not possible in a classroom interaction. A student will not learn software or hardware features which are not relevant and the mentor can adapt the pace of the tuition to suit the student. A student in a private tuition setting gleans important concepts and is shown practically useful skills in an environment which is non-threatening.
There are two principle obstacles to private tuition - cost and the availability of a private computer. Currently, home based personal computers that are sufficiently powerful to run large programs and access the Internet retail for less than $3,000. This expense must be considered a necessity in order to avert a continuance of gender inequalities. Viewed, in this light, $3,000 is a small price to pay. However, Australia already enjoys one of the highest rates of home ownership of personal computers. More and more homes have personal computers and this trend is unlikely to reverse.
The second obstacle to private tuition, cost, is not insurmountable. A strategy called here, the Pledge System is proposed as a mechanism to overcome the cost disadvantage of private tuition.
The Pledge System
Under, the Pledge System women register with a central organising body to receive private tuition. A mentor appropriate for each woman's current knowledge is selected. The mentor conducts a specified number of private tutorials in the student's home. The student pays no money for this service. Payment is instead in the form of a pledge; a pledge to mentor a specified number of women. Thus mentors are drawn from the pool of women who were once students. Indeed, it may be quite common for a woman to be mentor for two students and at the same time have a mentor herself guiding her through more advanced technologies. A large number of women can learn about emergent technologies in this way. The following estimates assume that a student becomes a mentor for 3 others in six months and that the system commences with 10 volunteers.
Table 2: Estimated growth in numbers of women who participate in the scheme
Table 2 illustrates the maximum growth possible from a starting point of ten volunteer mentors. In practice, there may be women who, for various reasons do not mentor others. For the pledge to act as a mentor cannot be a legally binding. However, there are also likely to be women who mentor more than three others during the course of six months.
Even though estimates cannot be predicted with total accuracy the exponential nature of the Pledge System is likely to involve large numbers of women. The 30 month estimate of nearly four thousand women represents a significant increase in the number of women who will have access to emergent technologies than is the case at present. If this can be achieved at no cost to participants and marginal cost to an administrative body in the space of two and a half years, then the prospect of equal numbers of women and men conversant with information technologies may not prove to be a distant dream.
Branwyn, G. 1994. Mosaic Quick Guide Tour for Windows: Accessing & Navigating the Internet's World Wide Web. Ventura Press. North Carolina
Turban, E. 1995. Decision support and expert systems: management support systems. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan; London: Collier
Zeleznikow, J. and Hunter, D. 1994. Building Intelligent Legal Information Systems, Deventer: Kluwer Law and Taxation