The need to focus on women and technology


March 8th, 2012

This International Women’s Day is all about empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Women play a vital role in food production in developing countries.  In fact, 43% of the agricultural workforce are women. Yet they have very limited access to resources such as land, credit and agricultural training and information compared to men.

I was therefore happy to attend an event in parliament on the 7th March on ‘Effective Solutions for Agricultural Development through Empowered African Women Scientists’. The event concentrated on getting women into leadership positions within science and technology and building their skills and confidence within the agricultural sector. It also places the spotlight on the need for research into aspects of agriculture that are important and helpful to women farmers.

Woman using her technical skills to make pots in Sudan

I listened to the stories of two African women scientists, Dr Sheila Ommeh from the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and Christine Mukantwali a senior scientist from Rwanada. Both women are AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) fellows. Both women have invested considerable time in researching sustainable agricultural solutions to help their communities and have acted as role models for girls in local schools, encouraging them to get interested in science.

It was great to hear about the importance of getting more women into science. However, this got me thinking about the wider topic of women and technology.

Technology is a vital element for any community. It plays a significant role in food security, agriculture and small scale production. Women use technical skills and knowledge in their daily activities; they continually innovate and adapt technologies in response to things they face in their everyday lives. However, their role and technical skills are often overlooked and undervalued.

There are four main reasons why women are less visible in the application of technology than men:

  • Firstly, much of women’s work is unpaid. Women have responsibilities for child care and subsistence tasks and this means it is less visible in national statistics.
  • Secondly, is the cultural perception of what constitutes ‘technology’. Women carry out a considerable number of technical activities every day. For example, they farm, process crops, weave, sew, collect wood and water, tend to small livestock, fish and look after children. These activities are mostly domestic , small scale and considered un-technical.
  • Thirdly, the perception of what comprises technology is mostly in the realm of ‘hard’ technology- that of equipment, like computers or machinery, but ‘soft’ technology is usually overlooked. Soft technology comprises the skills, concepts and knowledge needed to use the ‘hard’ technology. Women often have a lot of skill but use less complex equipment (e.g. in food processing).
  • Fourthly, the fact that few women are involved in agricultural extension work, research and development or technical development planning has meant there has been little challenging of assumptions made about the nature of productive roles and responsibilities and assumptions that  have undermined women’s roles and technical capacities.

The spotlight on women in science should open up and include the empowerment of those women that use technology day in and day out.  Practical Action’s ‘Discovering Technologists’ training guidelines is aimed at  increasing the skills of those involved in technology development, working in the agricultural development sector.  The training is an empowering process whereby women can realize that their knowledge is not only technical but also valuable, and this realisation leads to women themselves consciously exploring, strengthening and sharing the expertise that they have.

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