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It is no secret that technology allows us to be more productive.  Living here in California, I can conduct a meeting with colleagues in India or Egypt while sitting in my living room.   I can answer email while sitting in the car waiting for my son’s soccer practice to finish.  I can leave work early to go grocery shopping, knowing that I can make up for it at home in the evening.

Juggling work and family may not be quite as convenient for many working women in Africa, Southeast Asia, or Latin America, where reliable power supply, affordable bandwidth, and cultural barriers may complicate their efforts.  Still, a growing body of evidence points to a symbiotic relationship between communications technology and the empowerment of women in emerging markets.  What’s more, it makes business sense to tap into and facilitate this virtuous relationship.  It’s a classic win-win situation, if it is done right.

From a macroeconomic perspective, the positive effects are clear.  Countries with greater participation by women in the labor force enjoy greater wealth, health, education, and higher computer literacy and Internet access rates, according to the International Center for Research on Women.  Empowered women put pressure on their governments to improve health care, education and jobs.  A US National Intelligence Council report notes that many emerging market governments that employ women have lower levels of corruption, better governance, and higher rates of spending on education and health care.

Beyond the benefits for communities and nations, from a business perspective, women represent a huge market opportunity and productivity resource.  Globally, women account for almost two thirds of consumer spending, and women’s earned income is growing faster than men’s in developing markets.  A Boston Consulting Group report described women as the “biggest emerging market in the history of the planet”, more than twice the size of India and China combined.  Technology multinationals facing shortages in skilled labor in emerging markets may be able to tap into women as an under-utilized resource.  Women now comprise half or more of college graduates in China, India, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.

In order to maximize the impact of such efforts to empower women through technology, experience shows that involving women in target communities at an early stage may be key.  Development agencies in Kenya found, for example, that funds had been inefficiently spent on cook stoves that were unsuitable for villagers’ needs.  When they engaged directly with village women, the NGOs came up with an improved stove design that enhanced productivity while reducing women’s exposure to smoke.  Fine-tuning conventional technology devices to the unique local needs may be integral to the success of any outreach efforts.

Many women in developing markets shoulder a disproportionate share of family responsibilities.  Training programs that take into consideration logistical challenges faced by women including transportation, childcare and time of day are more likely to succeed.  Mobility can be key in these markets, where some women must travel great distances simply to recharge a mobile phone.  Traditional solar panels can be heavy, expensive, and fragile, whereas newer solar designs, or generators that run on cooking oil, for example, may make the difference between helping and hindering.

At the same time, government leaders in some of these countries are working to empower women.  Saudi Arabia, for example, is planning a women’s ministry, and more than 30 percent of legislatures in Uganda, Burundi and Macedonia are now female.  In order to encourage and support this trend, some multinationals are adding women to their public sector sales team to reflect the changing decision maker demographic.  Progress in this direction may not be linear, as cultural expectations and barriers may create problems and opportunities at the same time.

As a Cisco employee, I am proud of our track record supporting women in emerging markets.   Among other initiatives, Cisco in partnership with the United Nations Development Fund is supporting IT training initiatives for women in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.   It is also using technologies like Telepresence to bridge the divide between women and girls in different cultures and share common experiences and ambitions for the future.

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