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In conversation with Mahtab Laghaei former A4AI Intern

From June to August 2021, Mahtab Laghaei worked as a research intern at A4AI. During her internship, she collected device pricing data and co-wrote a discussion paper on gender, diversity, and device use representations in mobile network marketing. Laghaei shares her experiences as an intern with A4AI.

What did you hope to achieve in your time with A4AI?

Upon seeing the internship posting, I was thrilled that I could participate in essential research that would lead to solutions to bridge the sexist digital divide. During my time as an undergraduate student, I took a self-directed course on women and technology that was primarily focused on feminist science and technology studies. I was lucky to have this opportunity where I would connect what I learned in my course to research and data that would influence access and affordability. I was also interested in gaining a better understanding of A4AI’s role as one of the broadest technology sector alliances, specifically the mechanisms involved in building relationships with governments and corporations, as I had learned that our progress towards digital equity depends on the strength of these ties. Considering we were there to help with data collection for the 2021 device pricing dataset, I was also interested to see if there would be much of a variation in affordability and market pricing compared to previous years due to the impact of COVID-19. 

What did you learn about meaningful connectivity?

What our research and our supervisor Teddy Woodhouse showed us was that there are multiple levels to access, and different barriers that influence these multiple levels. These levels include device sharing – if your mobile phone is shared with a sibling, spouse, or a family member. Digital literacy and education determine your understanding of the internet’s capabilities, how often you use the internet, and for what purposes. If you can access technology in a safe, private space where your usage is not monitored by those with more power than you. These factors are elements that determine agency, which from this internship has been the most valuable takeaway, and what meaningful access entails.  

In terms of barriers to women’s access to the web, what has surprised or shocked you the most?

Even with an understanding of the pervasiveness of sexism and misogyny, it is still staggering learning about the extent of the gender digital divide where more than half of women still remain without connectivity. This is the case even among countries with the biggest markets for mobile phones that offer some of the most inexpensive devices, where affordability has not solved stark gender divisions for access. Instead, women’s access is hindered by other forces such as cultural norms. While much of the data into the gender digital divide exists, the painful reality is that we still lack disaggregated data that dives deeper into the intersectional experiences of diverse women that may even further decrease their chances of access. This includes barriers that impact age, ability, and gender diversity. The lack of media representation for disabled device users and senior women among marketing materials sheds further light on how these groups are invisibilized, and a better understanding of the specific barriers that hinder their access would better inform collective solutions for all women. I found this GSMA report on the digital access of women with disabilities particularly illuminating and telling of the need for a more robust and intersectional lens into the digital divide.   

This experience also cemented how different barriers to access, such as affordability, digital fluency, and cultural barriers work together to maintain the digital divide, and that any solutions would have to be multi-pronged, with dedication from both public and private sectors, and multilateral organizations to effectively address connectivity and ensure women not only have access, but the agency to use that access and become connected.   

As young women, what is your message to decision and policymakers around the world?

I would share my most valuable takeaway from this internship, which has been the bridging the digital divide cannot be solved by misguided technological optimism. We know that access to the internet is a human right, and is a significant predictor for economic growth and our social health. And while physical access to broadband and to devices is integral to full digital participation, meaningful connectivity also requires addressing some of the issues experienced by women who already have their access needs met. This includes the lack of women in ICT leadership positions, gender biases in artificial intelligence, and the slew of gendered and racialized harassment women are subject to when they are online. As policymakers also evaluate the success of existing programmes aimed at challenging the barriers preventing meaningful connectivity, I also hope they consider the full diversity within communities of women, as differences in culture, ability, age, and gender expression. If programmes do not consider these social variations, it may impact their success rate and continue to leave some women behind.