Access to ICT skills is key to e-government

Even though the National Programme for Computer Literacy targets women very successfully, as was emphasised by Dana Berova, the Czech Minister of Informatics, the access of women to skills that go beyond basic computer literacy is still limited.

Anna Curdova, Member of Parliament from the Czech Republic and the head of the Governmental Council for Equal Opportunities of women and men, pointed out the perception of women as users only, and their low participation in the ICT sector and tertiary education. She sees the root of this problem as being located within the educational system, both formal and informal, which usually enforces cultural stereotypes about the lower technical capability of women and discourage girls from taking part in the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Another issue is the lack of mentoring and networking opportunity for women entering the ICT ‘industry’. This is because men prefer to mentor and network with their male colleagues/peers. The dominance of men in the ICT industry is reflected in the working culture - including competitiveness, long working hours, and the need to keep updated with the fast development in the sector - which is more convenient for men than women.

In this context, Curdova highlighted Point 3.5. of the National Action Plan on “priorities and procedures in the promotion of equality for men and women”, adopted by the Czech government in April 1998. This point defines the promotion of women’s access to the ICTs industry and relevant education and training as one of its priorities1. The activities and results of all responsible for the achievement of this priority, including that of the Minister of Informatics, are currently being evaluated.

Roma women can hardly value ICTs and e-government

The situation of Roma women, who face triple discrimination in Czech society – as women, as Roma, and as female members of usually very traditional Roma communities - and who are the most affected by the so-called digital divide, was brought about by another panellist, Gabriela Hrabonova from the Roma youth association, Athinganoi. The majority of the Roma population do not have sufficient ICT skills to benefit from e-government and the information society generally.

Public internet points-of-access are the only economically affordable places for many Roma to access the computer and internet. However, those who have little experience in computing do not have the confidence to use the internet and computers in the public spaces. This is particularly the case of Roma women, whose self-confidence is usually very low. Roma women do not see ICTs and e-government as important priorities since only few of them are aware of how ICTs can help them overcome discrimination, or improve their access to employment, accommodation, health services and strategic information generally.

Gabriela Hrabonova gave an example of the Roma Diplomacy project that aimed to find ways for Roma communities to effectively represent themselves at national, European and international levels, and to protect their interests and identity. Although it was a very useful ICT-based learning initiative, the impact was limited, due to high ICT skill requirements that discouraged many Roma women from participating.

Gender inequalities and stereotypes may slowdown ICT development in small localities

Among other barriers that impede the extent to which women can access ICTs and benefit from e-government services, was the dominance of men in the ICT decision-making structure. APC WNSP Europe, in cooperation with the informal network of Czech women mayors presented a small survey among Czech women mayors. The findings outlined, among others, the difficulties of women mayors to access European Union (EU) funding and other development funds to enhance ICT development in their communities.

The women mayors often stand as the head of small cities and rural localities, where modern infrastructure, affordable ICT services, and access to ICT literacy are still lacking. Despite the fact that these needs correspond to the priorities of state and EU funding programmes, only a small number of women mayors who participated in the survey, finance their local ICT initiatives from outside resources.

One of the reasons mentioned is the prevalence of men in policy-making positions, as well as in the management of ICT private companies. This can negatively affect women's possibilities to access funds and to enter into partnership projects with other municipalities or the private sector. Such partnerships are usually one of the requirements for EU funds.

The e-government strategies pay little attention to women's information and communication needs

The efficiency of e-government services for citizens is, among others, defined by the extent and quality of provided information. Orsolay Liptay from the Association of Hungarian NetWomen, presented the experiences of Hungarian women with e-governance and access to public information.

She stressed that factors affecting women's access to information include literacy and education, language, time, cost, infrastructure or cultural and social norms. Liptay questioned the extent of ongoing e-government initiatives in addressing women's needs. In her opinion, e-government strategies pay little attention to women's multiple roles and time availability. Much of the information is not easily searchable and is badly organised. As such, it is time consuming or even impossible for not-so-advanced internet users to find information they are looking for.

In fact, many documents provided are poorly structured and written in a language that is not easily understandable. This increases the time required for women to use e-government services. Women are also missing some particular services and information, such as online consultations or forums run by public administrations, where they can get quick advice on inquiries specific to their needs.

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