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Empowering women and girls through technology: a holistic approach

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A future of true gender equality is possible. With all the studies and advancements to support women and girls in their education and careers, we have the framework in place for empowering women and girls to secure a future where they can thrive.  I whole-heartedly believe that by investing in the combination of women and technology, we are investing in the ability to make a lasting global impact.

Although we have made amazing progress the last few decades, there obviously is much more to do in empowering women and girls. Unfortunately, the uphill battle  just got a bit steeper amid the pandemic of the last 18 months, causing increased stress on women and girls. Nearly 3 million women have left the workplace over the last year due to the pandemic. Difficulties have also compounded online in the digital realm.  A recent study found 75% of girls surveyed said they experienced some form of online harassment or abuse. Over 22% of those who had experienced harassment said they shut down an online account due to that harassment. These numbers only reflect a fraction of other hurdles that women and girls face like internet access or the ownership of computers and mobile.

How can we create solutions for these problems? The first essential step is to understand the root cause and understand the spread and extend of these issues.  Looking back at the last 18 months, we can start finding answers by  better understanding the effect the pandemic has had on girls and what it might mean for empowering women and girls in the future.

Empowering women and girls: the way forward to gender equality

If we’re truly going to build a future of gender equality, then we need to look at a holistic solution for empowering women and girls. There is an entire process that needs to take place, from foundational research and investigations, to executing programs that drive access and opportunity, to following through with support in careers and beyond, even after initial initiatives and education.

Foundational research, reporting and studies

I’m a strong advocate of data. Gathering and analyzing data allows us to have both a breadth and depth of understanding for every challenge. Supporting foundational research for specific issues enables us to move the needle and shift conversations to gain proper attention for empowering women and girls and support an issue.

There are many remarkable organizations that are focused on creating a basis of reliable foundational research. For example, Girl Effect, is a  non-profit organization that uses the power of media to close the global gender data gap. Girl Effect has an upcoming study, building on previous foundational studies they’ve had over the years. This study will investigate some of the critical issues we’ve seen coming out of the pandemic. It aims to build a deeper understanding of the gender digital divide in a Covid-19 world, including the impact of the online world on girls’ sense of self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

Another amazing organization, Girls Leadership,  is equipping girls with the skills to exercise the power of their voice. They have recently published a study focused on girls and their readiness for leadership, calling out the need to support women in becoming leaders in their communities and industries, and highlighting the challenges women face in the process of building leadership skills.

We’ve partnered with Girl Effect and Girls Leadership over the years on these studies, and continue to build on our work to support meaningful and impactful studies. It’s these types of studies that will drive a deeper understanding around the gender digital divide, which is crucial in order to drive real impact and change.

Ongoing support, once programs and education end

Of course, after establishing the foundational research and a wholistic understanding, we can now spring into action for empowering women and girls.  We can leverage all the findings to uncover the areas where we can create change  to empower women and girls in tech, and then execute.

STEM and other educational tech programs are helping immensely to further tech education and bridge the gender gap early on. But we can’t underestimate the potential impact that comes from continuing to support and prepare women and girls for strong careers in tech in order to set them up for lasting success.

Research shows that grant dollars awarded to support young women in tech drops from 45% for high-school-age girls to 3% for college-age girls. This leaves a gap in funds and resources to provide further exposure to STEM during and after college, making it difficult for young women to pursue STEM degrees and careers. Luckily, there are organizations that are honing in on students’ journeys, supporting them from their educational stage, through graduation, and into their careers.

For example, the organization Bottom Line is partnering with students from underserved communities to get into college, graduate, and launch a thriving career. Bottom Line developed a program, Career Connections, that aims to ensure that they equip students to succeed in the job market as well as they do in college. Before this program, Bottom Line recognized that strong employability support had been the key missing link in their program model, and students’ success.

Another organization, Technovation, a tech education nonprofit that empowers girls to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers, recognized a similar missing link. They saw that Technovation girls still face systemic barriers after finishing the program that discourage them from pursuing STEM.

Technovation developed its Alumnae Continuum of Support to provide girls with access to jobs, mentors, scholarships, additional training, and professional networks, once their program ended and girls went on to college or entered their careers. Their students wanted a continuum of support that spans into their college years to ensure that they have access to the resources required to build their voice, influence and agency. That’s what Technovation built. For example, Technovation provides training and mentorship to girls to not just learn to code, but to apply coding and entrepreneurship skills to drive progress against the very structures – cultural, social, political, and economic – that constrain them. We’ve found that many of Technovation’s alumnae have found their way into the tech sector, just recently a couple them were recognized at the MIT Solve program.

Opening the door to tech and education is just one part of the journey of empowering women and girls, while ensuring continuing career support is the other. These organizations are responding to these gaps that are going to help women continue to thrive as technology leaders and entrepreneurs.

Lifting up those building the future

When these women enter their careers in tech, feeling well prepared and educated, there is eventually something that happens and they no longer are receiving the support and mentorship that they need in order to continue to grow and succeed with the new surrounding elements. There is a massive need for support and mentorship that happens for women once they are in their chosen careers and trying to achieve their goals in the workplace.

Continued support empowering women and girls through programs can’t stop at the education level, or even at the bridge between education and career. There is still a massive gender gap in tech among women and men in leadership roles, and as entrepreneurs. We need to support those women leaders and entrepreneurs who are already into their careers but do not see the same support as men. That’s what organizations like Empower Work and Fast Forward are working to achieve.

Empower Work kicked off an initiative: Supporting Women to Thrive at Work: Expanding Outreach to Underserved Working Women + Data Aggregation, with Employee Engagement. Their immediate, confidential text line meets women where they are, providing critical emotional and tactical support, such as giving resources to help women feel connected, empowered, as well as increase openness to reaching out if they need more. Empower Work elevates stories showing the power of connection and support via technology at critical work moments–whether it’s negotiating a raise, exploring a new job search, or navigating a tough run in with a manager. Sharing stories of the power of women to overcome an obstacle and take steps on a path forward can inspire others.

Fast Forward recently launched their Affinity Group Initiative to support underrepresented entrepreneurs who are using technology to accelerate social impact. As the first and only organization focused exclusively on scaling organizations that combine the best tech with sustainable nonprofit business models, Fast Forward’s mission is to accelerate impact.

Conclusion

At Vodafone Americas Foundation, there is no one part of the journey that should go unrecognized. Every piece is part of the bigger puzzle to solve the gender gap and empower women and girls through technology. This is why we take a holistic approach to the issues, and strive to support organizations at every step of the journey. The work is never done, but I’m proud of the progress these organizations have made, and I’m thrilled to be able to support them and their mission in empowering women and girls.

About June Sugiyama

June Sugiyama has been the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last 17 years. Previously, she served in several roles at Vodafone’s predecessors, AirTouch and Pacific Telesis International. She most recently led the Foundation’s transition toward impact through technology related programs. She also developed the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology solutions to address critical social issues around the world. June served on the board of Northern California Grantmakers and participates in the Arts Loan Fund and the Emergency Loan Fund of the organization. She also serves on the advisory board of the Foundation Center in San Francisco, and served on the advisory committee of the Vodafone Group Foundation and United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership, the board of the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Business Arts Council in San Francisco and Nobiru-kai, a Japanese newcomers association. June received her teaching credential and liberal studies degree at San Francisco State University, masters and specialist credential at University of San Francisco, and has teaching experience with schools throughout the Bay Area, especially in the Japanese Bilingual Programs. See June’s recent posts and activity on her LinkedIn

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