Women, technology and exploring the line between empowerment and manipulation

What can and should be done to increase women’s access to technology in the world, and, once they have access to it, where does empowerment stop and manipulation begin?

A panel discussion hosted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2013. The attendees, from left to right, are Tina Brown, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, 3D Systems' chief strategy officer Ping Fu, Intel VP Shelly Esque, Laura Inés López Padilla, president of the board of Mexico’s Network of Support for Women Municipal Leaders (REAMM) and political strategist Stephanie Cutter.  (Emi Kolawole/The Washington Post)

A panel discussion hosted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2013. The attendees (from left) are Tina Brown, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, 3D Systems’ chief strategy officer Ping Fu, Intel VP Shelly Esque, Laura Inés López Padilla, president of the board of Mexico’s Network of Support for Women Municipal Leaders (REAMM) and political strategist Stephanie Cutter. (Emi Kolawole/The Washington Post)

A gathering of powerful women in politics, policy and technology convened at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C., for an event hosted by the nonprofit National Democratic Institute (NDI) on Wednesday. The panel was called on to discuss ways in which technology could open opportunities in public life for the world’s women. Participants included former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, 3D Systems Chief Strategy Officer Ping Fu, Intel Vice President Shelly Esque, political strategist Stephanie Cutter and Mexico’s Network of Support for Women Municipal Leaders (REAMM) board president Laura Ines Lopez Padilla. REAMM was the recipient of a grant from NDI named after Albright. The Daily Beast and Newsweek publisher Tina Brown moderated the panel.

“There’s this absolute lack of information about women’s access to the Internet,” said Intel’s Esque when asked about a report the company released in January. “I think we’re pretty horrified by the findings, which confirm what a lot of people who work in this area believe: there’s a tremendous gap.”

The study found that 25 percent fewer women than men use the Internet in the developing world, with the gap growing to as large as 45 percent in some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa. “It just leaves women further behind and denies them this voice.”

But there was another side to the conversation around women’s access to technology, and that was the way organizations use the data generated by those women with access. Cutter, who served as deputy campaign manager on the Obama campaign in 2012, described how reams of data on voters allowed the campaign to fine-tune its grass-roots effort. The number of Facebook followers the Obama campaign was able to accrue, she said, allowed the team to reach roughly 90 percent of Americans using the platform, which let the campaign ”bypass the media, which was great.”

“We had these really smart guys in the back room who would run analytics to help us to figure out who our voters were and how we could best reach them,” said Cutter. “We knew a lot about them. And that is what really the use of technology on the Obama campaign allowed us to do — to target that single voter, who are more often than not women.”

“In many ways the campaign was fueled by women.”

So, on one side rests the challenge of empowerment — bridging the technology access gap between women and men in the developing world. On the other side lies the specter of manipulation, both in terms of women being able to use technology to achieve their own ends, and organizations’ ability to use technology to influence their actions.

But what about places in the world where women are gaining access to technology and that access is running afoul of societal expectations or religious strictures? Take, for example, the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world — where technology played an important role in empowering the people, irrespective of gender, to overthrow long-standing, oppressive regimes. That increase in access to technology, particularly among women, is now coming up against the limited opportunities for women to play a role in politics and policy-making.

“Basically, we still have to work an awful lot on just how women exist within systems that have not actually seen women as political players,” said Albright, “part of what has to happen as we get more women into politics in the world is to try and help them develop their message.”

Asked when the line between empowerment and manipulation stood to be crossed, Cutter said that campaigns couldn’t get away with manipulating information given the checks and balances present in the American political system. But that didn’t stop misinformation from making its way into debates or being issued by unaffiliated groups.

“Manipulation is possible,” said Cutter, “it’s not really done by the political parties — at least that you can see.”

Later, following the panel, Fu observed the power of perception in considering the distinction.

“Technology certainly can be used for manipulation, whether or not [it's] manipulation for good or bad,” said Fu. “If the cause is a good cause we call it ‘empowerment’. If the cause is a bad cause we call [it] ‘manipulation.’ The two are the same.”

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