Technology for Good Podcast: Women in Tech – Jamie M. Zimmerman, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
“I am bursting with feeling about urgency and opportunity, to ensure that tech can accelerate gender equality. When women and girls have an equal chance to thrive and lead everyone benefits”
Jamie M. Zimmerman from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to us in our Technology for Good podcast series.
For the next 5 episodes of Technology for Good, we are focusing on technological challenges and opportunities through the eyes of some incredible and inspirational women in tech, in the run up to and during the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, or PP-22. This major event will gather policymakers from ITU’s 193 member states to take decisions that will shape the future of technology, making it greener, more gender and youth inclusive and more accessible to everyone on our planet.
This podcast is the fifteenth episode of Technology for Good- an ITU podcast series that focuses on how technology is helping to shape the world around us.
Listen now…and don’t forget to like and subscribe to be the first to hear the next episode!
Available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and more.
Presented and Directed by: Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez
Co-presented by: Tiziana Ballester
Produced and Edited by: Gianluca Allaria
Production Assistants: Martina Camellini, Adeleh Mojtahed
Technology for Good – Jamie M. Zimmerman, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez, Senior Communications Officer, ITU
Tiziana Ballester, Junior Consultant, ITU
Welcome to ITU’s flagship podcast series Technology for Good. I am Max Jacobson-Gonzalez and I’m Senior Communications Officer at ITU, I have been interviewing a plethora of interesting people in the worlds of technology, technological innovation, government, academia… from fledgling entrepreneurs to Presidents and Prime Ministers, from chiefs of industry giants to young people taking their first steps towards scientific or engineering careers and even Hollywood film stars, but to balance things out a bit for the next five episodes of Technology for Good, which we have decided to devote to Women in Tech, I am going to be joined by different female co-presenters for every episode and today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Tiziana Ballester. Tiziana, why don’t you tell our listeners a bit about yourself?
Hi, my name is Tiziana Ballester, and I have a background in health technology innovation, I currently work at ITU as junior consultant in the Corporate Communication Division.
Thanks, Tiziana. Now before we meet our guest why don’t we also tell the listeners what ITU is?
Well, ITU is the International Telecommunication Union, and it is one of the oldest agencies of the United Nations. ITU’s aim and challenge is connecting people all over the world, through information and communication technologies (ICTs) bringing all the decision makers together from 193 member states, to discuss, study and make decisions on the technology, standards, development, and infrastructure that affects all of us.
That description is a little bit dry. How about sharing a fun fact about ITU?
OK, how about this: Some of you may remember the old phones had buttons: the number 5 had a little bump that helped blind people navigate the phones, ITU was at the forefront of that standardization. And another interesting fact is that ITU helped standardize the universal charger.
Which means that there is lest e-waste as a new phone with a different cable connection nowadays only means getting a new cable as opposed to throwing away the whole plug and cable combined. And there’s plenty more for instance “Oscar Bravo Juliet Tango, over? ” Does that sound familiar? It’s the ITU phonetic alphabet used by emergency services, ships… but we haven’t got time for any more today… Tiziana, please tell us one thing of many that ITU wants.
ITU wants to hear from women in tech related jobs, who have often got there with the odds stacked against them, so people can be inspired, in particular the next generation, to not only inherit the future but shape it too.
In this episode, we are focusing on efforts being made towards a more gender-equal world by addressing the barriers that keep women and girls from being fully active in their homes, economies, and societies.
Our guest today is at the forefront of working to solve the undervaluing of women and girls.
Welcome to Technology for Good, Jamie Zimmerman.
Jamie leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s newly formed Digital Connectivity learning agenda and strategy to accelerate closure of the gender digital divide. Jamie is currently on assignment to the Gender Equality division from the Global Growth and Opportunity Division where she has led the Foundation’s work to increase low-income women’s economic empowerment through access to and usage of digital financial services since 2020. Which makes her the perfect guest for today’s conversation.
Jamie, thank you very much for being with us.
Thanks for having me, Max. It is great to see you again. And it is great here to be with you and with Tiziana. I think it is really cool that you are doing this podcast series on Women in Tech. I’m thrilled to be with you today, and I’ve already learned so many new things just from that intro.
I’d like to start off by asking you, because you’re the one we want to hear from. I’d like to start off by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today if you don’t mind.
Oh, yeah, absolutely and you know, it’s been a while, Max, I think since we sat down together at the ITU in Geneva, was that maybe late 2019? And I think the world has changed a lot. I don’t know if we knew what was coming for us when we sat down then and so much has changed, also for me personally, as you just said. So, you mentioned my new role at the Foundation and our new and growing gender equality division. We just kicked off this new area of work, a new team called “Gender Impact Accelerators” and I’m leading this learning agenda around what we can do to help accelerate the gender digital divide. And what I thought I could do, by way of introduction, is tell you three reasons why I’m so excited about this work and I think it’ll explain a little bit about how I got here, too.
So, the first reason I’m super excited that we are doing this work and digging into it at the foundation is that digital connectivity is really a critical and urgent goal in its own right. Full stop.
We are leading GDP growth, economic opportunity, development impact, on the table every day that there is a gender gap in access to and usage of digital tools and systems.
The second reason is that meaningful connectivity is critical for achieving any number of other goals. So, for example, I’ve spent the last 20 years, as you were mentioning, working on policy and innovation for financial inclusion and economic empowerment, and the last five years of that, specifically at the Gates Foundation, focused on women’s economic empowerment through mainly digital financial services and digital systems. And I’ve learned from that experience over all these years that there is just simply no way that we are going to be able to get to equality and financial access and financial inclusion if there are persistent and disproportionate digital divides, digital exclusions that we’re seeing today.
And the third reason is, for me, that I personally grew up in a part of the United States where there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of inequality. I grew up in a family where I saw women fighting for equal pay, fighting for equal opportunity, for an education, for equality in their own household. So for me, gender equality and finding ways to accelerate progress towards it, is something I’ve been very passionate about for a very long time. So, it’s been a long journey for me to get here personally. I consider it a huge privilege and honor to do the work that I get to do at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I could just support institutions and partners all over the world to empower the poorest, especially women and girls, to transform their lives. And that’s really cool.
So you just mentioned gender inequality. Could you tell us what some of the barriers are that keep women and girls from being fully active in their homes, economies, and societies?
Well, the barriers that women face. Well, how much time have we got?
Seriously, though, there are there are so many barriers holding women back from their economic and social potential. Barriers like control over money, access to control over capital, to invest in their education or small businesses. Barriers in formality: women are less likely to have formal ID than men, less likely to own a formal business, more likely to work in the informal economy. There are barriers to women’s mobility, that literal ability to move, move around and distances in there. There’s there are barriers in time use. There are clear barriers and burdens like caregiving that we see women face and even equal legal rights and support. So, you know, kind of you name it, there are there are barriers across the board. And I think that all of this ladders up to these inequalities and gender gaps that we see along a spectrum of essentially pay, power and participation. And I think it’s important to say that the severity of these barriers really depends on so much. So, like where a woman lives, how old she is, how much money she or her family has alongside other factors like race, caste, education levels. So which barriers and how in a sense they are really dependent. But we also know that they often add up and they compound upon each other and that they exist for women in nearly every context in the world. And another thing we know is that this pandemic over the last couple of years really set us back. It put in stark relief for us how all of these barriers show up and the risk that they have and what’s at stake if we don’t figure out how to address them. I think what the latest statistics I saw from the IMF said that we’re now 132 years away from closing the gender gap. So, you know, we have a lot of work to do.
And I was just looking at the latest data from the GSMA Mobile Gender Gap report. There is still a 7% gender gap in mobile ownership, but a 16% gender gap in mobile Internet usage, that’s globally. So, if we start to break that down into regions, we’re looking at dramatically increased numbers, like 37% gender gap in mobile Internet usage in sub-Saharan Africa, a 36% gender gap in South Asia. There are still 372 million who are unconnected, nearly a billion who are not using mobile Internet at all. And if we compare 2021 to 2022, we actually see that for the first time since the data has been collected, that the gap is widening. And so that’s really concerning. Clearly, we have got a lot of work to do to make digital systems and tools work for women. For our digital connectivity learning agenda at the Foundation that we’re just kicking off, we’re focusing in on those barriers that we talked about before, but how they relate to six key drivers of the gender digital divide. And those six drivers are: affordability, accessibility, digital literacy, relevance, safety and security, and then the cross-cutting issue of social norms. So, what we’re hoping to do over the next several months is to identify where we need to learn more and where there are clear opportunities to do more to accelerate the pace of change and progress.
Now, you’ve given us some pretty pertinent and poignant examples there and shared some pretty depressing statistics on that. I wanted to ask you, how do you think technology can overcome some of the barriers to women’s equality that women and girls face on a day-to-day basis?
Well, clearly, I’m really excited about the promise of technology. And I think that if well-designed and well deployed, it can really help chip away at all of these barriers. When women have equal access to digital tools, their use of them is as much, if not greater, than men. And the benefits can be enormous: benefits to agency, to her privacy, to decision making power, to asset accumulation that she can use for investment in education and health for herself or for her family, for building and growing a small business, for connecting with peers, building networks, for getting access to useful information, to products, to services, and even to entitlements, which is something we saw a lot of during the height of the economic policy response to the pandemic.
Our questions are around really what would matter most and work best to accelerate high impact access to and digital tools. I think the important point to make is that intentionality is required. I think without it we make assumptions that generalizations around digital access that could actually leave women even further behind. Like, “Oh, eventually everybody will be online”, “eventually everybody will have a smartphone”, “…everyone will just use this app at all”, “… Everyone will be on 3G” or higher. And I guarantee you that if we aren’t designing and aren’t investing intentionally to close these gaps and they will persist and maybe even increase.
So, I think that we should be as skeptical of trickle-down digital connectivity and trickle-down digital development as we are of trickle-down economics as a mean for inclusive growth. I think I’d also say that technology is a tool. It’s an enabler, it’s a facilitator. It’s an accelerator for sure. It can accelerate overcoming the barriers, but it could just as easily accelerate the exclusions and barriers that already exist, becoming more and more useful to the connected and the advantaged, and becoming more and more out of reach to the unconnected or under connected. So, we have to look at the barriers and to look at the disadvantages, look at the vulnerabilities and I think we just have to ask better questions. So, for instance, what needs to change in order to, make this technology or this digital tool as accessible to and useful for to women as it is for men? Or another question, you know, how could this technology be intentionally deployed to overcome a barrier to women’s equality and women’s empowerment? So, as we continue to move into the same kind of increasingly digital world, I think we need to be asking ourselves: how can we ensure that the tools that are created, the systems and infrastructure that are created, are designed, and built with the needs of women, and particularly those furthest from social and economic inclusion and opportunity in mind. It’s not just about getting women into the system, so to speak. You know, I don’t think that we want to just force women into a system that is designed by and for men. I want to see the system working equally well for everyone. So, that has to start with addressing the systemic barriers and inequalities that have been baked into the systems from the beginning and I really think that the technology itself and the tools can be designed to intentionally break down those barriers and get us to that change.
So, you just mentioned technology as a tool. Your work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes women’s economic empowerment, women’s leadership in innovation and science and technology to improve itself. Can you give some examples of how such initiatives work in practice?
Yeah, and happy to. I’ll start by saying that at the Gates Foundation we really focus on a few things. You know, we focus on areas of greatest need. We focus on making markets work for the poor, and we focus on how we can take risks. We’re also super focused on results and being data driven. When we talked earlier about kind of the compounding and intersectional nature of gender inequalities and disadvantages that women face. We know that this is complex and that there won’t be a one size fits all solution. So, we know that when we set up our gender equality division, we’d have to take a different kind of approach, and we’re focusing in six different ways. The first is really starting at home, starting within our own walls, ensuring that the whole foundation is working towards gender equality and all the work that we do. The second is looking at how we can work to improve women’s health at every stage of her life. A third is increasing women’s economic opportunity and decision-making power, removing barriers to work, enabling decent work, and then creating digital access and meaningful connectivity, which we’re talking about today. A fourth is strengthening positive social norms around gender equality. Fifth is collecting and analyzing more and better data to ensure women are counted and considered in policy and product design and decision making. And then, there’s a sixth that’s around supporting advocates to ensure that decision makers in the world prioritize and resource gender equality and leadership pathways for women. So, how all of that works in practice, really, can vary widely depending on the context and the opportunity.
One way that it could look in practice is pushing for a policy infrastructure change that could look like integrating gender intentionality into modernizing social protection systems or modernizing ID systems, like we do with the World Bank. It could look for look like advocating for change through major fora, like the UN’s Gender Equality Forum, or even through standard setting bodies like the ITU. Another example would be more direct investments and programs in product innovation and design. Here I’m thinking about examples like our partnership with the World Food Program, where they’re really working to design gender-centric humanitarian response systems using digital tools, or work with the GSMA to set up a lab where they can pilot and test out open source and interoperable solutions to design better apps and products and services for women with TELCO operators. Or working directly with private sector companies to do things like leveraging smartphones to improve women’s access to capital for small businesses, or digitizing wage payments for garment workers in Bangladesh. Or digitizing savings deposits in record keeping with self-help groups in Uganda, like we’re doing with CARE. So, so many examples there. It’s just skimming the surface. But a third area is to also ensure better analysis and rigorous learning and better data capture. So, all of that to say, you know, it really varies and there’s no one size fits all approach to solve these complex issues. I think we are comfortable at the Foundation of hunting for solutions, planting a lot of seeds and finding out what will have the greatest impact at scale. And that’s what this digital connectivity learning agenda is all about.
You’ve left us under no illusion that breaking down structural barriers to equality and social norms that disadvantage women is nothing but a great challenge. Do you see progress being made through projects and programs, particularly focusing on digital connectivity that help women overcome day to day obstacles?
Absolutely. I think that there are a lot of really cool things being done, and I’ll give you a couple of examples, but I want to start by saying that I think when we’re talking about breaking down structural barriers and digging into cross-cutting issues like social norms, we have to start with a better understanding of the nature and prevalence of those issues in different contexts. Barriers around women’s access to handsets, access to electricity, network connectivity, device maintenance requirements and costs, lack of female agents at device charging stations or places where digital devices are used, like mobile money agents or merchants, women’s access to support channels that are not staffed by other women. All of these issues that are preventing meaningful connectivity and equal connectivity of women are either rooted in, or exacerbated by, structural barriers to equality and normative constraints that women face around education, around mobility, time, poverty and more that have that already exist in societies and communities. And we talked about those little earlier. And like I said then, I think that we can start to break down these barriers just by asking better questions. How does this work for women? How will this new tool work for women? How does she experience this differently than men, already? And what can we do differently to take into account, to work around and even push against and break down these barriers and norms as we’re designing new tools, new initiatives, new programs, products, and infrastructure. And I think a really critical piece of the puzzle that we don’t talk about enough and we simply cannot ignore is that we have to bring the men and boys along for this ride. They need to be part of the change. So, a couple of cool examples where I’ve seen this recently. Going back to a couple of partnerships I already mentioned, one with CARE and one with the World Food Program, both of these coming out of Uganda, and I was just there in June for a visit, so these are really top of mind for me. First, we were working with CARE on a program called Digital Sub Wallets, where we’re working to empower women and improve their livelihood opportunities through formalizing and digitizing self-help groups. So, women coming together, saving up little bits of money at a time and then being able to use that to make investments in a small business. We called them Women’s Empowerment Collectives at the Gates Foundation. So, this program included a really cool component called Household Dialogues. And the intent there was to sit down with the woman and her spouse and to really talk about and push on some of these social norms around women’s financial and decision making power in the household, the control over the money, how a rising tide can lift all boats, and the outcomes for women and households where these dialogs took place were significantly higher and had more positive impacts in the households that didn’t. It really made a difference to have those conversations together. Another example I’ll give is with the World Food Program as part of their work to really center women in their digital cash transfers and focus on digital financial inclusion. They’re testing out a model within their programing called “Digital Champions”. And in June, I sat down in the Nakivale refugee camp in western Uganda with a group of male digital champions and they told me these incredible stories about their changes in attitudes in themselves as digital champions and in the communities around them. When they started to talk about the value of women being connected into digital systems to be able to use mobile money, the benefits that women could have from digital access, from digital literacy, and the opportunity that the tools give them for their lives and livelihoods and for financial management overall. So, these men were sharing story after story with me about a shift in attitude from “power over women” and “of control over the household” to one with at once a power with women and power to grow together. And I think we need to hear a lot more stories like that.
I couldn’t agree more. I love that – rising tides lift all the boats, that’s a great analogy! Last question, over to you Tiziana.
So finally, what do you hope will change in terms of gender inequality in the next ten years or so? And what technologies do you think will be key to help us continue to try and redress the balance?
Well, goodness. So, I think as you can probably see, I am bursting with feelings of both urgency and opportunity to ensure that tech can accelerate gender equality. And I hope that so many things are going to change in the next decade. But I’ll share, you know, just a handful with you.
First, I hope, like we were saying about rising tide lifts all boats, I hope that everyone will start to see and really internalize the economic benefits of gender equality at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. When women and girls have an equal chance to thrive and lead, everyone benefits. There’s more than a $500 billion economic opportunity in closing the digital gender gap, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet and a $2 trillion opportunity if we were able to achieve equal economic participation between men and women, according to McKinsey. So, we need to figure out which digital systems and tools will help women make more money, get access to capital, and get good jobs. Another hope that I have is that we start to get serious about collecting and using gender disaggregated data. Sexist and incomplete data is a really huge problem. We can’t know the scale of the problem and any problems in the world without data. We can’t measure impact; we can’t measure progress or causality without the data. It slows down our ability to accelerate impact, and it prevents us from developing the most thoughtful, intentional policies, products, and programs. I’m hoping that maybe technologies like AI, machine learning, big data, that these could all be really instructive here and really help us to understand better and I’m answering some of those questions that we have about what works for women and what can accelerate impact, I think that that will only happen if we really use those new technologies well and it will require an incredible amount of intentionality. I also hope that digital systems and tools can help us remove inefficiencies and will help us increase security and create frictionless experiences for women, even those with the lowest income. And that we go in with our eyes wide open to the many risks of exclusion and/or harm and the disproportionate ones for women and girls that these systems create. I’d like to see us getting a bit more serious about understanding and tackling those risks and barriers and making digital connectivity as meaningful as possible for women and girls. I really hope that we do a much better job of listening and bringing women into the design and decision-making process around digital connectivity. More people, especially women who have haven’t historically had a seat at the table, need to have one. And if we can’t make the table bigger and bring in more chairs, then I think we need to start intentionally seeding some space for them in order to just show up and be part of the conversations and helping with design and decision making. We have seen a lot of setbacks to gender equality in recent months, in the last couple of years in particular. And I really think it’s going to take an all-hands-on deck approach and the commitment of a lot of people around the world in order to accelerate the pace of change and to make the progress that we need to see.
Thank you very much, Jamie. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and hearing your wonderful and valuable insights, as always. And we hope to catch up with you again in the not-too-distant future before you go. A final word to our listeners.
I would just love to say a humungous thanks to the ITU for all that you do. The role that you play in building global coalitions and standards and pushing for a more digitally equal world is so important and so valuable. We, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, appreciate your work and your partnership. And I might just say finally to your listeners, know, if you have opinions or ideas for what it will take to accelerate closure of the gender digital divide and ensuring meaningful connectivity for women and girls. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Please reach out to me.
Well, thank you once again, Jamie. I’m Max Jacobson-Gonzalez.
And I am Tiziana Ballester.
And we have just been talking with Jamie Zimmerman who leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s newly formed Digital Connectivity learning agenda and strategy to accelerate closure of the gender digital divide.
And next time, we’ll be talking to another astonishing women in Tech.
Why not send us your feedback on Instagram @ituofficial.
And if you have any comments or suggestions, anything or anyone that has inspired you, and that you would like us to feature, do write to us at email@example.com you can also visit our website at www.itu.int. And…If you’ve enjoyed listening to this programme, please don’t forget to subscribe to ITU podcasts. You can find us on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more, as we try to dig ever deeper into how technology can truly serve the greater good for all the residents of our planet. We can’t wait to share with you our next podcast with another great woman deeply involved in ICT world and to listen to her unique story.
Thank you very much. And don’t forget to tune in to our next episode.
Technology for good. An ITU digital production.