03.02.11

Women | Tools | Technology: A Global Leapfrog, An ExxonMobil-sponsored Series

Six years ago, ExxonMobil designed a program to help women in developing countries reach their economic potential and drive significant social change in their communities. This month, an ongoing Daily Beast series will highlight some of the global efforts underway as a result of the strategic investments and partnerships helping to transform the lives of underprivileged women worldwide.

Hard to believe that in 2011 certain conversations remain relevant. But a popular women’s movement slogan still has an unfortunate ring of credibility to it: “Women make up half of the world’s population, do two-thirds of the world’s work, yet earn ten percent of the world’s income, and own one percent of the means of production.” Of the quote, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Isobel Coleman says, “It captures the inequalities that exist between what women produce and what they earn and control.” And blinding though it sometimes may be, sunlight still is the best disinfectant.

“Women around the world are the ones responsible for collecting firewood for cooking and clean water for drinking. Rural Africa women lug the equivalent of a suitcase of firewood and water from Columbia University to LaGuardia Airport and back [about 20 miles] each day,” says Coleman. “They’re also largely responsible for caring for children, preparing meals, tending to farm animals, and raising the family’s subsistence crops. And they get paid for none of this,” she says. “In paid jobs, they also tend to make less than men in equal jobs, and work predominantly in lower-paid fields.”

Over the last several years, the ExxonMobil Foundation, the energy corporation’s philanthropic arm, has attempted to reduce the barriers to women’s economic potential. It’s helping to grow the next generation of female entrepreneurs and business leaders in developing countries, and identifying and providing needed technologies to thousands of women in nearly eighty countries such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, and the Middle East, among many others. Why? Because of its positive economic and social implications. And, quite frankly, the outcomes of more stable, healthy, well educated, and thriving communities are also good for business in the countries in which the company operates.

Suzanne McCarron, ExxonMobil Foundation President elaborates, “In our view, technology holds the promise of creating step-changes in women’s economic productivity, enabling women to sustain and expand their income-generating activities.

Tools and technology that brighten women’s lives and work.In our business, technology and innovation are the keys to addressing the world’s major energy challenges. We understand the value of investing in R&D and deploying new technologies,” she says, “and this has given us a perspective on how technological deployment—although in different fields—can have a truly transformative impact.”

The significant barrier to economic advancement due to a lack of access to energy speaks for itself. “An estimated 1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity,” she says, “and approximately 2.4 billion rely on biomass fuels like wood, charcoal, or dung for cooking and heating. This inhibits productivity, education, health, and safety for these people—seventy percent of whom are women and girls.”

ExxonMobil chose to focus specifically on women, “as the potential of women is an untapped resource in many countries around the world.” Likewise, gender income differences can hardly go unnoticed, she says. “When this disparity is addressed, the whole world stands to benefit.” Perhaps less evident is another compelling reason. “Women tend to invest more of their income in the health, education, and well-being of their families. In that way, by supporting programs that enhance women’s economic opportunities, we are really looking at ways to improve the social and economic conditions of entire communities.”

To date, the multinational energy company has invested more than $40 million to support community-based and global partners such as CFR, as well as NGOs, universities, and government agencies to implement programs directly benefiting women.

Last year, ExxonMobil asked the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), another partner, to examine how technology can economically advance women around the globe. Research culminated in a white paper fomenting a powerful rationale for ExxonMobil’s focus on women. Not surprisingly, the study, Bridging the Gender Divide: How Technology can Advance Women Economically, found that as women’s use of technology increased, they were drawn into higher levels of economic achievement, enabling them to contribute more significantly to the welfare of their communities, which could also help lower child mortality rates and encourage disease prevention.

Its findings also confirmed that technologies, both traditional and modern, are not gender-neutral and have benefited women radically less than men. But, that the gender and technology divide can be bridged by taking into account women’s own needs and perspectives when developing and deploying new and existing technologies. To that end, the white paper said it was critical to involve women throughout the entire technology lifecycle—from creation to usage, and from development and research to distribution and marketing. Access to a broad range of technologies could also promote women’s economic advancement by improving productivity and saving time, and by offering women opportunities for entrepreneurship or in paid or formal employment.

Anju Malhotra, vice president for Research, Innovation & Impact at ICRW, says that, transportation technologies, for example—from mass transit to the motor scooter—have given women affordable and flexible ways of going to work, delivering their products and services, and developing professional networks.

Scooters provide large numbers of urban women in countries such as China, India, Malaysia, and Thailand with safe, reliable transport, making it easier for them to access both employment and educational opportunities. In rural settings, mechanical, energy, and transportation technologies have enabled women to complete agricultural and food processing activities in less time, as well as help them earn higher incomes through the sale of larger quantities of produce or products. Treadle water pumps in Africa and Asia allowed women farmers to irrigate small plots and increase their harvests and incomes.

Says Malhotra, “In recent years, energy and ICT technologies have also successfully helped to create new income-generating activities by being not only the users, but the marketers of technology. For example, women have sold technology services and the use of the specific technologies to others in their communities.” Village mobile pay phones in Bangladesh, she says, are “an example where women entrepreneurs operate businesses selling communications and mobile phone services, serving entire communities.”

Opening up such opportunities closes the pernicious gender gap in education, suggests Isobel Coleman. “Social change, especially when it touches the role of women in society, is often strongly feared and resisted. Giving women more freedom and greater mobility threatens patriarchal structures and is depicted as undermining the family and religious mores. Yet,” she says, “as social changes are coupled with real economic opportunities, there is more likely to be grudging acceptance from fathers, brothers and husbands.” Put simply, when families see tangible economic benefits, they’re more likely to support the idea of empowering women.

Last January, ExxonMobil launched the Women | Tools | Technology: Building Opportunities and Economic Power Challenge with the ICRW and Ashoka’s Changemakers, a global association of leading social entrepreneurs. Suzanne McCarron explains, “We identified 268 innovations from 67 countries that use technology to promote women’s economic advancement.” By September, ExxonMobil invested an additional $1 million to provide follow-on support to a group of promising innovators for the expansion of a number of these technologies. Says Anju Malhotra, “We’re excited to see how creative ideas will trigger generations of change for women and economies.”