Back in the early 1990s, I went into debt to buy a computer - a Mac Classic II with a black and white screen - and a modem. It came with an America Online account. I didn't have access to this new "Internet" thing at my work, so the first time I logged in, I was at home, via AOL. I learned about online communities before I learned much about email, because I didn't have any friends that had email - I sent postcards to all of my friends with my email address and asked them to contact me if they were online as well - I'll never forget my very first email!
At a later job, also at a nonprofit, I was the internal communications manager - but the marketing manager, a consultant who came in only a few days a month, announced he didn't want anything to do with this "Internet" thing, especially the World Wide Web. I happily accepted those responsibilities: answering emails, participating in online communities on USENET and AOL related to our nonprofit's work, and building and managing web sites for all of our many initiatives. I had so many web responsibilities, I couldn't keep up, and since the organization really wanted more young people involved, I recruited a couple of tech-savvy university students to volunteer with me and help me build and maintain web pages.
All of this lead to a career I never planned for and couldn't have dreamed: directing the Virtual Volunteering Project at the University of Texas for more than four years, directing the United Nations Online Volunteering service from Germany and helping to manage the United Nations Information Technology Service as well for four years, and becoming a consultant regarding nonprofit communications and community engagement, working all over the world, including Afghanistan, Egypt and Ukraine.
All this time, I've gone out of my way to encourage women and girls to leverage computers and the Internet themselves for their personal and professional aspirations. I want every woman and girl to feel she has the right to take up space on the Internet: to share their opinion, to discuss, to debate, to promote their own work, to learn and to explore. I amplify their voices on Twitter and try to help them via my blog with articles, like
- Innovation & tech need to work for women and girls too
- How to be active & anonymous online – a guide for women in religiously-conservative countries
- Enhancing Inclusion of Women & Girls In Information Society
- Virtue & reputation in the developing world
- Judgment & reputation online – and off
This is how I've tried to build the technology skills to girls and women anywhere. I hope I've played even a small role in encouraging women and girls online - and off.
The challenges I have faced are those that I continue to face: scarce funding, working in male-dominated environments, online and off, where women's input are ignored or dismissed, and out-and-out hostility, in the form of insults, from men online. What keeps me going? The women who write me and say I have helped.
25 April is International Girls in ICT Day. I hope my efforts, even this story, has inspired women and girls to take up space on the Internet, in classrooms and in work places around the world.