CSW 61: Tech and Women’s Empowerment in the Changing World of Work

Last week marked the conclusion of the sixty-first session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year’s priority theme was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” UN members states pledged to implement several measures to help close the gender pay gap, including “equal pay policies, gender audits and job evaluations” in addition to redistributing “unpaid care and domestic work that falls disproportionately on women.”

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, men still earn 23% more than women in the workplace. Peace is Loud speaker and international human rights lawyer, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, previously highlighted in an interview with the IMF that statistics on labor often do not account for women’s non-traditional economic contributions. As a result, many women are actively creating their own roles in economies in unchartered ways to serve the needs of their own communities. Although women have gained more access to labor markets, there is still a need to push for women’s holistic inclusion and substantive integration into global economies.

Gender gaps still persist in various industries, particularly within Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) fields. In a CSW side event hosted by the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations, Code-to-Inspire founder and Peace is Loud speaker Fereshteh Forough explained how technology transformed her own life. Fereshteh grew up in the 80s as a refugee in Iran after her family fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As one of eight children, Fereshteh learned how to become an entrepreneur at an early age from her mother, who learned how to make dresses to pay for her children’s school supplies.

After returning to Afghanistan, her family settled in Herat--a major city at the time defined by sparse access to running water and only 3 hours of electricity daily. She started teaching English to younger girls at an elementary level. Soon after, she passed her general entrance exam for university, and was accepted in the Computer Science department. Overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, Fereshteh become one of the first female mentors in the faculty teaching Java programming to over 200 students. She returned back to Afghanistan after studying at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany for two years, and accepted a position as a professor of Computer Science at Herat University.

Recognizing the limited opportunities available for women in technology in Afghanistan, Fereshteh channeled her life experiences into founding Code-to-Inspire (CTI)--a nonprofit committed to teaching female students in Afghanistan how to code. According to the website, “CTI aims to hitch women's economic and social advancement on to Afghanistan's growing tech industry.” The expansion of the tech industry mirrors broader growth within the infrastructure of Afghan society itself, with nearly 7 million children enrolled in schools around 37% of whom are girls with 30% female teachers. 90% of residential areas have access to telecommunication and information coverage, and 10% of Afghan citizens (about 3 million) have internet access.

                                                          Image: Code to Inspire

                                                          Image: Code to Inspire

Despite this progress, gender-based violence continues to be a limiting factor for the progress of girls and women in Afghanistan. “Decades of war, civil unrest, and political instability have destroyed basic social service delivery mechanisms in Afghanistan, with education being the most vulnerable social sector,” Fereshteh told the audience. In the face of these odds, Code-to-Inspire is teaching Afghan girls and women to not only gain increasingly vital technical skills, but creating a means for them to gain economic empowerment in a growing national economy.

With proposed budget cuts under the current administration to major programs and organizations that promote peace and create safer and more just societies, the work following this year’s CSW gathering will be increasingly important. And ensuring women’s economic empowerment to participate is essential. In the words of Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, “We need to see women as co-creators: co-creators of technology, co-creators of content, co-creators of their products. [Women need] to be owning, to be [at] the decision-making table, to be shareholders.”    

Photo via UN Women