The majority of participants at this year’s e-government conference were representatives of public administrations in the Czech Republic and other Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia). Given the newness of the topic and the audience profile, we – at APC WNSP Europe - have decided to organise a panel coined as “ICT and Equal Opportunities of Women and Men”. We agreed that this would provide a space for diverse key local and regional actors to present their views on gender issues in e-government.
What e-government brings to women?
Since e-government was a quite new topic for me, I began my preparation for the conference in a conversation with my mother. She is over 55, living in a small city and has been working in public administration for several years. As a low-level officer who plays an essential role in the practical application of e-government ideas, and who also importantly forms part of the majority (women), I found my mother to be the perfect person to ask what e-government means –as a practitioner, implementer and constituent.
“Right now, it’s a nightmare for most of us,” she says, describing the working environment of her office,, “because the usual administrative tasks are taking us double or even more time. The old computers are not able to handle new software requirements and crashing often. In fact, all documents need to be archived twice, electronically and in paper, since nobody trusts the new system.”
According to her, the key problem is the low level of skills amongst staff in the usage of new information and communication systems. Only heads of office were trained in the usage of software, with the expectation that they will pass on the training to the rest of local staff. However the skills transfer did not actually happen. Instead, everyone was only equipped with a 200-page manual.
To educate herself, my mother stayed a couple of evenings at work to study the manual herself. However there are many others who do not feel comfortable with emerging technologies and find it hard to self-educate,. Others are not able to stay overtime as she did, because their children are still young. As a result, staff members are struggling with the increase in their workload and new technical requirements -to the point where some are even considering leaving their jobs despite the high level of unemployment in the region.
We usually think about gender issues in e-government from the users’ perspective only. The conversation with my mother brought me new insight to this issue and I left for Hradec Kralove (Czech Republic), where the conference took place, with emerging questions in my head:
Would the additional cost be so insurmountable for training all staff in local offices as part of a new system implementation? Especially considering the savings it will bring in terms of time effectiveness and human resources? Are there substantive reasons why the training of all members of staff was not considered an important priority? How does the dominance of men in policy-making processes, and in the ICT sector in general, affect the extent of e-government’s effectiveness in addressing women's needs? What are the constraints? And finally, how are women able to benefit from e-government services that are top priorities of national ICT policy –and incidentally, are paid for by their taxes?
E-government may improve women's lives, but the next steps need to be taken
The APC WNSP's panel “ICT and equal opportunities for women and men” proved gender to be an important issue to be placed on the e-government agenda, and brought responses on some of my questions.
There are many ways in which e-government impacts on women's lives. As mentioned by several speakers, women are usually in charge of communication with public administrations at the level of households, and e-government services can mean less time needed for queuing up in front of doors of different departments. It may also bring the government closer to women and make it easier for them to monitor state activities and budget spending in their localities in order to influence the decisions that affect their lives.
E-government can facilitate better access for Roma women, and other marginalised groups, to up-to-date and cost-free public information and services in areas that directly affect them, such as health care or housing.
Last but not least, women feature as a significant number of public administration staff, and the e-government programmes may bring negative changes to their workload, working conditions and their position in the labour market. For example, many women working as administrative staff in banks or insurance companies lost their jobs along with the introduction of ICTs.
The panellists offered some good suggestions on next steps that can be taken to ensure that women and men take full advantage of the national e-government programmes. The assessment of women’s information and communication needs, the support of networking and the partnership projects development among women mayors are two illustrations. The panellists also insisted on the support of measures to enable access of women from ethnic minorities to training. All these pieces of the puzzle demonstrate the potential of e-government and go beyond basic ICT literacy.
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