OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

“…Like little girls are passionate about… err… other things” by Katie R
June 16, 2009, 4:20 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves

Due to the fact that the issues in this post strike a very significant chord in my heart, that they are indeed my passion and motivation for choosing the career field that I chose (Public Health, but specifically women’s health and rights), this took a significant amount of time and care to compose.  It is in Gender and laptops?response to the conference that was held more than a week ago, and so in order to retain a more coherent chronology to our team’s blog, I reserved this spot for the post before it was ready, and Katie M and I continued to publish posts about subsequent events.  We’re now filling this spot in…

Gender and laptops.  Nothing to do with each other?  Maybe.  “Leave it alone, Katie R” part of me says. “You can find gender inequality issues under a rock in the middle of a crater on the moon; don’t go looking to find cracks in a decent cause; pick your gender battles- some matter more than others…”  Maybe.  I tried to brush off some of the early wisps of smoke that tickled my sensitive gender fire alarm.

For example, during one online chat seminar months ago in which OLPCorps teams were sharing ideas on topics for learning projects, a few did mention that their summer learning programs were going to “focus specifically on science and technology, obviously.”  This might seem intuitive at first (laptops=technology, right?), but to tout the program under such a title risks marginalizing little girls before the program even begins.  In cultures where strict gender roles/delineations/limitations are still pervasive both in practice (i.e., types of jobs available for women) and in perception (i.e., value of sons compared to daughters), a program emphasizing science & technology in the title rather than learning & education (which may appeal to genders more equally) automatically carries the connotation, whether subconsciously or not, that it is geared more for little boys than little girls.  Luckily one of the OLPC staff present at the seminar did respond that the programs should be more broadly focused, as the XOs are meant to be used for everything from music to art to photography to, yes, computer programming skills, but not just science & technology.

Another question/concern came up and was never addressed when, at the same learning seminar, I received no response to my inquiry as to whether any of the other teams were taking measures to ensure that little girls were as involved in the laptop programs as little boys.  It seems that most teams are deploying their 100 laptops to schools.  In the U.S., assuring equal access to both boys and girls in a situation like this would be solved by the method of deployment.  Because all kids are enrolled in school, no extra gender considerations are needed.

This is not the case, however, in most African countries.  The male to female ratio of school enrollment is alarmingly disproportionate, with more boys than girls enrolled in school in many countries and a gap that only widens as students get older.  Deploying laptops to children that are already enrolled in school in Africa means, in most cases, that little boys will be much more likely to benefit from the laptops, and little girls, who are more vulnerable to start with, are left in the dust.  However, there is little that a team of university students (OLPCorps) can do to change this inequality with their 100 laptops in a matter of 10 weeks.  I understand that, I really do.  I was just wondering if any of the teams (or OLPC, for that matter) had thought of it in terms of their deployments.

As it turns out, Nicholas Negroponte (the chairman of One Laptop Per Child) did refer to gender in terms OLPC deployments on Tuesday at the big opening ceremony for both OLPCorps and the Center for Laptops and Learning in Rwanda (see Caught in Ponzi Scheme).  Negroponte made clear that little girls would not be left in the dust at OLPC deployment sites and he sees an important role for them in the sustainability of programs.  For example, children in a rural town in Cambodia were so concerned about taking good care of their new equipment, Negroponte explained to the audience, “that the little boys had their sisters make bags for their laptops.”  Ah, yes.  Making bags.  A very important role for little girls to assume to help ensure that their brothers receive a quality education.

Negroponte conceded that some little girls may, like their brothers, have an interest in learning, though he seemed to stumble a bit on what it is, exactly, little girls could be passionate about.  When talking about how to enhance learning opportunities, he emphasized that children must first be passionate about learning.  Passionate about learning “like little boys are passionate about football,” he explained, “or like little girls are passionate about… (awkward pause)… other things.”


But, what is it exactly that is so offensive about his remarks?

A casual observer may not think Negroponte’s comments all too problematic. So a male, middle-aged, MIT professor doesn’t know what little girls like to do?  Big deal.  For all we know, Negroponte is very much a proponent of gender equality.  But, as the figurehead and spokesperson of OLPC at a high-publicity conference, Negroponte was addressing an audience of important government officials from all over Africa, some of whom (see The OLPC Roller Coaster) may already have misogynistic tendencies.  It is disappointing that Negroponte not only reinforced gender stereotypes (assigning football to boys and implying that little girls aren’t or would not be passionate about football), but was dismissive or unaware of the potential little girls have to be passionate about the world (beyond sewing bags).

As a prominent proponent of what could be (and is described by members as) an exponential improvement in education, Negroponte should be more vocal about the powerful potential these laptops have at improving gender equality, as much as he should be aware of the potential that propagating unhealthy gender roles and dismissing little girls’ potential has at deteriorating gender equality.

For instance, women’s education is one factor that has been shown to have a consistent and strong relationship to improvements in a wide range of health factors over the years, from decreasing high fertility rates (number of births per woman) to enhancing child and family health to decreasing poverty on a whole.  When educating women is overlooked and undervalued, and little girls are less likely to go to school at all or more likely to drop out of school early, the entire population bears the subsequent health burdens.  OLPC, with its mission to create quality education opportunities for every child, is in the powerful position to be the starting point in bridging these gender disparities.

Contrary to the underlying tone that I detected in Negroponte’s remarks, little girls are just as passionate, curious, and eager to learn about the world as little boys, and supplying them with a powerful tool like the XO could allow them continue learning whether the misplaced cultural values around them allow little girls to be enrolled in school or not.  In fact, OLPC has made significant and laudable strides in this direction in some places, such as Afghanistan.

In addition, while large problems like domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual violence seem to dominate the violence-against-women discussion, smaller issues tend to make the most difference in people’s lives. Like is the case with stress, the smaller, daily stressors lead to lower quality of life than the big, life-changing stressors. Does a woman have to walk through an unsafe area to get water? Does the girl child get as much attention from parents and elders while growing up? Do women see powerful examples in their lives to emulate?

If little girls were given the same education as little boys, they might have the tools to fight the cycle of discrimination perpetuated against women worldwide, and also specifically in the African countries with OLPCorps deployments.  With better education, women would have access to more job opportunities, would be more capable gaining the financial independence needed to get out of violent relationships, would have other livelihoods to turn to before resorting to sex work.  These girls could become agents of change in their communities.

If this progress toward gender equality and toward improvement in the lives of women is a flame, then women’s education is the kindling, and OLPC is in a unique situation to provide the igniting spark by ensuring that little girls get XOs, especially those not in school….

However, when organizations, or the individuals that represent them, fail to recognize gender equality in their public statements, there is small hope that little girls, their rights, and their equal potential will see significant progress any time soon.


1 Comment so far
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This post really hits a big issue: there is real gender inequality in education. No moon rocks needed to see it first hand – just look at the OLPC pictures of XO’s outside of classrooms and the majority are little boys.

I hope that again, there might be a difference between Negroponte’s words and OLPCorps actions.

Could you take this on as your lasting impact on OLPC – a realization and structure to create gender equality in its educational offerings?

As the father of an XO loving daughter, I would love to know what Activities excite young female minds, and as a proponent of good development, I would love to know how to excite the minds of educators to include girls (and women) in life-long learning.

Comment by Wayan

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