Category Archives: research

On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

Several friends in recent weeks have contacted me about whether or not they should consider doing a PhD – and the first question I always ask is “why?”. How they answer that has a huge impact on how I answer their own question. However, it has made me realise that although I have written many bits and pieces about the changing character of a PhD, I have never pulled them all together into a single place. This reflection is therefore in part a summary of how I see PhDs as having changed since I completed all 642 pages of my own thesis in 1979 (having started in 1976). I hope that the insights I have gained in the 41 years since then may be of value not only to those considering doing a PhD, but also more widely to others engaged in the supervision and management of doctoral research in universities.

In summary, whilst there continue to be some brilliant students who complete outstanding theses within three years, the sad truth is that over the last 25 years the PhD has become significantly devalued and corrupted. It is time for fundamental change in PhD “production”.

I say this with enormous regret, since I see the PhD process as being of huge value and importance. It is, though, the only conclusion I can reach after having supervised 28 MPhil and PhD students since the mid-1980s (across different disciplines, and most as the only or first PhD supervisor), having examined PhDs in some 25 universities in 11 countries, having served for a decade on the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (2004-14), and having also held various other roles relating to postgraduate research and training.

The following inter-related issues seem to be of most importance:

Not all PhDs are equal

There are huge differences in the requirements for and the quality of PhDs, not only between different countries, but also within countries, and even between departments in the same university. This is despite the use of external examiners who are meant to be arbiters of equivalence, and also despite the observation that most universities have fairly similar broad criteria for a PhD that focus on the advancement of knowledge through theoretical and empirical work. Imagine, for example, my shock when I was asked to agree to a PhD being awarded, thinking as I do that usually some 6 months of empirical field research is required for a good PhD in my field(s), only to be told that two weeks in the field was deemed to be sufficient by the university in question. The quality of expected intellectual curiosity, analytical acuity, conceptual ability, quantity of work, linguistic capability, and many other factors all vary hugely. The best PhDs remain outstanding pieces of research, but that cannot be said of all. Sadly, almost anyone with some ability can now be awarded a PhD at some university, even without resorting to some of the corrupt practices outlined further below.

Money talks and grade inflation

Grade inflation is well known at the undergraduate level (see for example Richmond, 2018; Lambert, 2019), but it has also happened at the Master’s level and even with PhDs. Unfortunately many (although again I stress not all) Master’s courses are poorly taught, and often seem to be mainly a means for universities to make as much money as possible from students willing to pay to differentiate themselves from their peers by having an additional Master’s qualification. This is a global phenomenon, but happens even in some UK universities that have a good reputation, which enables them to attract numerous higher fee-paying students from oversees. As undergraduate degrees become of lower value, it makes increasing sense for those students who can afford it to opt to get a step ahead by doing a Master’s degree – regardless of its quality. I have heard far too many stories of students paying to do a Master’s degree in a presitigious university, fully aware of the poor reputation of the teaching on the course, but still choosing to do so because of its perceived future benefit for their careers. Sadly there is a conspiracy of silence over this, because few students are willing to say publicly how poor the courses are, because that would immediately devalue them and thus their own status. Likewise no academic is likely to say that they teach a poor course, even if they rarely actually teach much of it themselves because they are too busy doing research and instead leave most of the teaching load to teaching assistants. The same is increasingly happening at the doctoral level. Universities are desperate for the much larger funds that PhD students bring – especially from overseas – and having accepted students they will do almost anything to ensure that they pass in one way or another. This can only lead to a lowering of quality.

The duration of a PhD

In the distant past, PhDs could unfortunately sometimes become a lifetime’s work, although they were never really intended to be this, and it has always been possible to complete an excellent PhD within three years. The expected duration of a PhD also varies somewhat between countries with different academic traditions. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards in the UK, Research Councils with their concerns to show value-for-money put increasing pressure on universities to limit the term of a PhD to a maximum of 4 years. Today, many universities insist that students must submit within four years, and failure to do so means that a degree is not awarded. In part this is driven by competition in league tables that include completion rates in their calculations, but it has also unfortunately often had the effect of reducing the quality of work submitted. In my experience, students who come from different academic traditions and more disadvantaged backgrounds often find it very difficult to adjust to starting a PhD in the UK, and I know that several of my own students in the past who completed very good PhDs would simply not have been able to do this within the 4-year limit now imposed. That would have been a shame, because they produced excellent PhDs and have gone on to do great things.

The pre-requisites for doing a PhD

It may seem strange for some to think that in the 1970s I went straight from doing an undergraduate degree to completing a PhD successfully. Now in the UK, most students must have at least one Master’s degree before starting, and even then they still have to do large amounts of postgraduate training especially in their first years of a PhD. In part this reflects the grade inflation that has so beset the sector over the last quarter of a century, with many people saying that Master’s degrees now are about the same standard that undergraduate degrees were from the “best” universities only a few years ago. However, it also reflects the increasing complexity of PhDs, and the requirement for postgraduates who wish to teach to gain relevant skills and training for their future academic career whilst doing their PhDs. Nevertheless, I still believe that a well-supervised, well-educated, outstanding undergraduate should be able to embark on a PhD without the necessity of spending time completing a Master’s qualification just for the sake of the certificate, especially when it is poorly taught and not necessarily of direct relevance to the topic of their proposed PhD.

Many other prospective students also seem to think that just because they have gained a Master’s degree somewhere (indeed anywhere in the world) that means they are undoubtedly capable of getting a PhD. This is very far from the truth. Only a few Master’s students in my experience have the inellectual curiosity and acuity successfully to complete a high quality PhD.

The challenges of part-time PhDs

I was recently asked if I thought that someone could successfully complete a PhD whilst also holding down a full-time job elsewhere. I responded quite simply “no”! It is extremely difficult if not impossible to do this and to submit a good thesis within a reasonable time period. Part-time degrees are meant to imply just that, namely that the student is also doing part-time paid work as well (not full-time), and if a full-time PhD is meant to be 3-4 years in length, then a part-time one, working >20 hours a week on it would require dedicated commitment for seven years which is a very tough order. I stand by this statement, and find it almost incredulous that some people can think of working 40-50 hours a week in paid employment and also do a PhD – especially when I feel that good PhD students should be committed to working between at least 50 hours a week on their research for three entire years (with a few short holiday breaks). Yet many people still sadly do seem to think that they can complete a PhD with only a relatively minimal amount of effort. This sadly just goes to show how the status of a PhD has fallen over the last half century!

There was definitely a time, though, in the mid-2000s when I very much championed the cause of part-time distance-based PhDs, and encouraged several people living in various parts of the world to join our ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) research community whilst working part-time in paid employment. This placed heavy burdens on them, and also on me as a supervisor, but it taught me a huge amount. None of them found it at all easy – and some found it very, very tough. However, they succeeded. Back in 2007 I therefore drafted a paper based on these experiences, although somehow never bothered to make the small number of revisions requested by a journal editor for it to be published. Having re-read it recently, I still think it has something of interest to say to those who are thinking of embarking on such a mode of PhD research and am now making it available here for anyone who might be interested – although it is undoubtedly somewhat dated.

Whose PhD actually is it?

I, perhaps too simplistically, still believe that in most cases a PhD should be the work of a single person, who actually does all, or certainly the vast majority, of it, from the research, fieldwork and analysis, to the writing up and presentation. To be sure things are sometimes more complex in laboratory sciences, or on expeditions when team work is essential, but even then the actual PhD should remain largely the work of one person – supported and guided by a supervisor (or a supervisory team) – and the precise amount contributed by others clearly stated. Not so long ago, supervisors worked carefully with their students, regularly going through manuscripts and helping them improve the quality of their academic writing. This is especially important when working with students from different cultures and academic traditions, and whose first language may not be the language in which the PhD has to be written. In the past, I often found myself spending a whole day going through a 10,000 word chapter for a student, and suggesting revisions to the text that could improve it. Increasingly, though, academics are discouraged from assisting students with developing these academic linguistic skills, because they don’t have the time to do it, because they are told that this is specialist work for support services to do, or because students who are accepted to do a PhD should already have these skills; sometimes students even object to supervisors commenting in detail about such things as sentence structure and written style, even though such comments are designed to help them develop these relevant skills!

A very specific, but increasingly common, issue arises when students send their draft work to an external “proof reader” before submitting it (there are many examples of companies offering this service, such as Scribendi, ProofReading, or Oxbridge Proofreading). It is relatively easy for a supervior to see when this happens, because there appears to be a dramatic, overnight, improvement in the quality of a student’s written work. It is, though, exceedingly difficult to know how much of a manuscrpt is actually written by the student, and how much by the “proof reader”. Given that having a PhD in a given language is meant to be indicative of the academic abilities of a person in that language, it seems to me that any substantial revision by someone other than a supervisor suggesting revisions to a draft is unacceptable.

At a further extreme, there are very clear examples of students getting a “friend” to do some of the work for them, such as doing the statistical calculations, drafting figures, preparing the templates, or even rewriting parts of it. If a thesis is meant to be a student’s own work, then these practices are likewise not acceptable. I remember drawing more than 50 figures with stencils and a Rotring pen for my own thesis, each of which took at least a day to complete – and that was without all of the computer generated graphs as well (which took some time to do back in the 1970s)!

Corruption within the system.

There are indeed many good supervisors, PhD students and management systems to support them across the world, but it also needs to be recognised that there are also many poor systems and outright corruption that must be rooted out, not least in my own country, the UK. Some dubious practices have already been suggested above, but these pale into significance when compared with the following examples.

Poor supervision and problematic examination boards

Sadly, there remain too many examples of poor doctoral supervision, although in my experience almost every academic I know well is hugely committed to this role, and sees it as a central and enjoyable part of their work. It is after all the main means through which new blood is brought into the system! Nevertheless, I am personally aware that the following practices still occur, and I am sure there are many others as well:

  • One of the main complaints is that some supervisors only rarely see their students. This has always been the case, but I know of cases where students have still had to complete their theses with only a handful of supervisory meetings over three years, and have been discouraged from making formal complaints about this because their supervisor is a good academic and colleague in a department. Most students in such situations are also under severe pressure, not least because supervisors are often required as referees in their subsequent job applications, and in disciplines where supervisors are expected to be named authors on papers to make a complaint would severely handicap the submission of future publications from their theses.
  • Other supervisors have been known to use their students’ work primarily to build their own career and without giving them the credit for their original research [Partly for this reason, I have never asked to be an author on my students’ papers, and only ever write joint papers with them when I do a substantial amount of the actual research].
  • Some supervisors have tried to prevent their students from submitting their theses – occasionally right at the last minute – even when they themselves haven’t made the time to read and comment on final drafts. [It should always be up to the student to decide when a thesis is submitted].
  • Others are willing to take on large numbers of doctoral students for the prestige and income they generate, but know they don’t have time to supervise them all properly; the weakest often fail to swim and eventually drop out.
  • When it comes to the examination, it is sadly often the case that supervisors tend to try to find “softer” examiners for “weaker” candidates.
  • As an external examiner, I have also encountered very strong (and indeed quite upsetting) pressure from internal committees to change my mind; at least I won’t be asked to be an external again for such universities! [Increasingly, I have found myself warning universities that I will make judgements according to the standards that I consider appropriate, and when I suspect that a candidate may be weak I do not accept the invitation to be an external examiner. I have also been known to give my honest opinion of a piece of work, whilst adding the caveat that I don’t know the normal standard acceptable in an institution/country, and I would of course be willing to discuss the matter further].
  • I have recently been made aware of the term “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”, which is apparently quite common in certain parts of the world, particularly for undergraduates, but also occasionally for postgraduate degrees as well. I have to admit to being shocked that I hadn’t known of this term until the last few years – perhaps this shows just how naïve I am! It is, though, an issue that must be addressed – and the complexities involved mean that this is not necessarily always as easy as might at first sight be thought.

Fortunately, systems are being put in place by many universities to reduce such practices, but they do still exist, and tighter mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce poor supervisory and examination practices.

Student corruption

Much has been said and written before about problems with the supervisory process, but a few doctoral students are also themselves engaged in clearly corrupt practices. The extent of such corruption globally is unknown (although see Osipian, 2012; Denisova-Schmidt, 2018), but some inappropriate practices with which I am familiar include:

  • Paying someone to write part or all of a thesis. There is a fine line between this and the increasingly common use of “copy editors” noted above, but the widespread and sophisticated use by universities of plagiarism detecting software (such as Turnitin) has meant that those students who don’t have the time (or ability) to write their theses are now turning to professional dissertation and thesis writing services (see for example, Study Aid Essays, British Hub, UK Top Consultant, WritePaperForMe). One of these brazenly advertises its services as follows:

For 9 Years … has supported over 3,000 undergraduate, postgraduate & doctorate students with original custom essays, proposals, reports, literature reviews, full dissertations and statistical analysis in a wide range of subject areas

  • Arranging for a friend who will be supportive to serve as the external examiner. This should be precluded by the systems a university has in place for the appointment of examiners, but I even know of a case where it appears there was collusion between the student and the supervisor to ensure that a favourable friendly examiner was appointed.
  • Unfounded malicious accusations by students against their supervisors with the intent of ensuring that they are awarded their doctorates. Although these cases are rare, it is easy for a student to blame a supervisor for their own failings. Despite the apparent power relationships in favour of supervisors, some universities are so concerned about the “bad press” that can follow in such circumstances that they tend to find ways through which the student can succeed, even when the consequent standard is low.
  • The giving of lavish gifts by a student to their supervisor. This can be hugely complex, especially because gift giving has varying meanings and significance in different cultures. Nevertheless, it can be very problematic for a supervisor to accept expensive gifts from a postgraduate student before the award of the degree, even when there is no devious intent behind it [Gifts of appreciation after the award of a degree do, though, still seem appropriate should a student wish to give them].
  • I know several examples where doctoral students have not done the empirical field research themselves, but have instead paid for assistants to do it on their behalf, and do not acknowledge or admit such “help” in the text of a thesis. Given that I expect a thesis to be “all the student’s work” (see above), I cannot condone this practice, but I am aware that it seems to be acceptable by some universities in certain circumstances. Translation also represents a challenge, and I confess that in the past I have usually insisted that students learnt a language of the country in which they were doing their research.
  • I have not myself encountered cases where thesis data have been fraudulently “created”, but notorious examples exist, and the scale of this problem is undoubtedly greater than many people care to admit, not only in postgraduate research but also more widely in academia (see Hopf, Mehta and Matlin, 2019).

Many of these dimensions of corruption are extremely difficult to prove, but universities should recognise that they exist, and should do more to prevent them. In a nutshell, as less-able people seek to gain doctorates, the likelihood of fraud and corruption undoubtedly increases.

This is not only morally wrong, but it is also unfair on those many students who work extremely hard to achieve a PhD, it devalues the worth of PhDs in general, and it contributes yet further to a lowering of the overall quality of academic research.

A positive conclusion

Despite the above comments, I like to believe that most supervisors and doctoral students work collaboratively and well together, and that many truly original and excellent theses continue to be crafted across the world. Working with able postgraduates has certainly been one of the real joys of my academic career although there is no doubt that supervisory relationships are among the most fraught and challenging of any in academia. It is truly a blessing to see how the careers of most of those students who I have had the privilege to supervise have flourished and blossomed, and it is a joy to keep in touch with so many of them.

In the 2000s, recognising the need for me to give greater clarity about what was involved in doing a PhD in our ICT4D Collective, and to help students undertstand my own expectations of the superviosry process, I produced two documents. Having looked at them again, it is evident that they need some updating (they were last updated in 2007 and 2008), but I still stand by almost everything contained within them, and so am posting them here as a guide for potential students (and interested others) to what I try to practise as far as supervision is concerned:

The first of these emphasises that a good PhD should not be a life-work – that will come later! Instead, I have found that it is often easier to see a PhD primarily as something that provides evidence of the achievement of a key set of seven academic skills (slightly adapted below):

  • Being thoroughly conversant with the key intellectual debates in a particular subject area, and using this to provide a conceptual framework for the thesis
  • Being able to identify important novel issues from these that will form the focus of their research, and developing these into a clear aim
  • Being able to design a relevant methodology to undertake rigorous empirical work that will add to our collective knowledge in that research field
  • Then using this to undertake research and gain empirical evidence in a particular place or places
  • Analysing the results of that field research in the context of the theoretical or conceptual framework
  • Writing this up clearly and effectively in an interesting way
  • Drawing relevant conclusions that move knowledge forward, and (for the field of ICT4D) make new practical recommendations in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Over the years, I have come to realise that students have varying strengths and weaknesses in achieving each of these. Many have difficulties in engaging theoretically and developing an approprioate conceptual framework, whilst the majority find the empirical field research most enjoyable. Nevertheless, a good prior degree should enable the first four of these elements to be done relatively easily. Unfortunately, some students can only get this far, and find it impossible satisfactorily to analyse the data, which results in an overly descriptive and thus problematic thesis.

I do hope that these reflections may be of help and interest to those embarking on a research degree – although I have very deliberately not answered the question that I posed at the beginning! That’s up to you, but I hope that what I have written will help you answer it!

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Filed under ICT4D, Postgraduate supervision, research

Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives

Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Health, ICT4D, poverty, research, technology, United Nations

The attitudes and behaviours of men towards women and technology in Pakistan

Gender digital equality, however defined, is globally worsening rather than improving.[1]  This is despite countless initiatives intended to empower women in and through technology.[2]  In part, this is because most such initiatives have been developed and run by and for women.  When men have been engaged, they have usually mainly been incorporated as “allies” who are encouraged to support women in achieving their strategic objectives.[3]  However, unless men fundamentally change their attitudes and behaviours to women (and girls) and technology, little is likely to change.  TEQtogether (Technology Equality together) was therefore founded by men and women with the specific objective to change these male attitudes and behaviours.  It thus goes far beyond most ally-based initiatives, and argues that since men are a large part of the problem they must also be an integral part of the solution.  TEQtogether’s members seek to identify the best possible research and understanding about these issues, and to incorporate it into easy to use guidance notes translated into various different languages.  Most research in this field is nevertheless derived from experiences in North America and Europe, and challenging issues have arisen in trying to translate these guidance notes into other languages and cultural contexts.[4]  TEQtogether is now therefore specifically exploring male attitudes and behaviours towards women and digital technologies in different cultural contexts, so that new culturally relevant guidance notes can be prepared and used to change such behaviours, as part of its contribution to the EQUALS global initiative on incresing gender digital equality.

IMG_5561

Meeting of EQUALS partners in New York, September 2018

Pakistan is widely acknowledged to be one of the countries that has furthest to go in attaining gender digital equality.[5]  Gilwald, for example, emphasises that Pakistan has a 43% gender gap in the use of the Internet and a 37% gap in ownership of mobile phones (in 2017).[6]  Its South Asian cultural roots and Islamic religion also mean that it is usually seen as being very strongly patriarchal.[7]  In order to begin to explore whether guidance notes that have developed in Europe and North America might be relevant for use in Pakistan, and if not how more appropriate ones could be prepared for the Pakistani content, initial research was conducted with Dr. Akber Gardezi  in Pakistan in January and February 2020.  This post provides a short overview of our most important findings, which will then be developed into a more formal academic paper once the data have been further analysed.

Research Methods

The central aim of our research was better to understand men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology in Pakistan, but we were also interested to learn what women thought men would say about this subject.[8]  We undertook 12 focus groups (7 for men only, 4 for women only, and one mixed) using a broadly similar template for both men and women, that began with very broad and open questions and then focused down on more specific issues.  The sample included university students and staff studying and teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), tech start-up companies, staff in small- and medium-sized enterprises, and also in an established engineering/IT company.  Focus groups were held in Islamabad Capital Territory, Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh, and they were all approximately one hour in duration. We had ideally wanted each group to consist of c.8-12 people, but we did not wish to reject people who had volunteered to participate, and so two groups had as many as 19 people in them.  A total of 141 people participated in the focus groups.  The men varied in age from 20-41 and the women from 19-44 years old.  All participants signed a form agreeing to their participation, which included that they were participating  voluntarily, they could withdraw at any time, and they were not being paid to answer in particular ways.  They were also given the option of remaining anonymous or of having their names mentioned in any publications or reports resulting from the research.  Interestingly all of the 47 women ticked that they were happy to have their names mentioned, and 74 of the 94 men likewise wanted their names recorded.[9]  The focus groups were held in classrooms, a library, and company board rooms.  After some initial shyness and uncertainty, all of the focus groups were energetic and enthusiastic, with plenty of laughter and good humour, suggesting that they were enjoyed by the participants.  I very much hope that was the case; I certainly learnt a lot and enjoyed exploring these important issues with them.

This report summarises the main findings from each section of the focus group discussions: broad attitudes and behaviours by men towards the use of digital technologies by women; how men’s attitudes and behaviours influence women’s and girls’ access to and use of digital technologies at home, in education, and in their careers; whether any changes in men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology are desirable, and if so how might these be changed.  In so doing, it is very important to emphasise that although it is possible to draw out some generalisations there was also much diversity in the responses given.  These tentative findings were also discussed in informal interviews held in Pakistan with academics and practitioners to help validate their veracity and relevance.

I am enormously grateful to all of the people in the images below as well as the many others who contributed to this research.

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Men’s attitudes and behaviours towards the use of digital technologies by women in Pakistan

When initially asked in very general terms about “women” and “digital technology” most participants had difficulty in understanding what was meant by such a broad question.  However, it rapidly became clear that the overall “culture” of Pakistan was seen by both men and women as having a significant impact on the different ways in which men and women used digital technologies.  Interestingly, whilst some claimed that this was because of religious requirements associated with women’s roles being primarily in the sphere of the home and men’s being in the external sphere of work, others said that this was not an aspect of religion, but rather was a wider cultural phenomenon.

Both men and women concurred that traditionally there had been differences between access to and use of digital technologies in the past, but that these had begun to change over the last five years.  A distinction was drawn between rural, less well educated and lower-class contexts, where men tended to have better access to and used digital technologies more than women, and urban, better educated and higher-class contexts where there was greater equality and similarity between access to and use of digital technologies.

Whilst most participants considered that access to digital technologies and the apps used were broadly similar between men and women, both men and women claimed that the actual uses made of these technologies varied significantly.  Men were seen as using them more for business and playing games, whereas women used them more for online shopping, fashion and chatting with friends and relatives.  This was reinforced by the cultural context where women’s roles were still seen primarily as being to manage the household and look after the children, whereas men were expected to work, earning money to maintain their families.  It is very important to stress that variations in usage and access to technology were not always seen as an example of inequality, but were often rather seen as differences linked to Pakistan’s culture and social structure.

Such views are changing, but both men and women seemed to value this cultural context, with one person saying that “it is as it is”.  Moreover, there were strongly divergent views as to whether this was a result of patriarchy, and thus dominated by men.  Many people commented that although the head of the household, almost always a man, provided the dominant lead, it was also often the mothers who supported this or determined what happened within the household with respect to many matters, including the use of technology and education.

In the home, at school and university, and in the workplace

Within the home

Most respondents initially claimed that there was little difference in access to digital technologies between men and women in the home, although as noted above they did tend to use them in different ways.  When asked, though, who would use a single phone in a rural community most agreed that it would be a male head of household, and that if they got a second phone it would be used primarily by the eldest son.  Some, nevertheless, did say that it was quite common for women to be the ones who used a phone most at home.

Participants suggested that similar restrictions were placed on both boys and girls by their parents in the home.  However, men acknowledged that they knew more about the harm that could be done through the use of digital technologies, and so tended to be more protective of their daughters, sisters or wives.  Participants were generally unwilling to indicate precisely what harm was meant in this context, but some clarified that this could be harassment and abuse.[10] The perceived threats to girls and young women using digital technologies for illicit liaisons was also an underlying, if rarely specifically mentioned, concern for men.  There was little realisation though that it was men who usually inflicted such harm, and that a change of male behaviours would reduce the need for any such restrictions to be put in place.

A further interesting insight is that several of the women commented that their brothers are generally more knowledgeable than they are about technology, and that boys and men play an important role at home in helping their sisters and mothers resolve problems with their digital technologies.

At school and university

There was widespread agreement among both men and women that there was no discrimination at school in the use of digital technologies, and that both boys and girls had equal access to learning STEM subjects.  Nevertheless, it is clear that in some rural and isolated areas of Pakistan, as in Tharparkar, only boys go to school, and that girls remain marginalised by being unable to access appropriate education.

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Furthermore, it was generally claimed that both girls and boys are encouraged equally to study STEM subjects at school, and can be equally successful.  Some people nevertheless commented that girls and boys had different learning styles and skill sets. Quite a common perception was that boys are more focused on doing a few things well, whereas girls try to do all of the tasks associated with a project and may not therefore be as successful in doing them all to a high standard.

There were, though, differing views about influences on the subjects studied by men and women at university.  Again, it was claimed that the educational institutions did not discriminate, but parents were widely seen as having an important role in determining the subjects studied at university by their children.  Providing men can gain a remunerative job, their parents have little preference over what degrees they study, but it was widely argued that traditionally women were encouraged to study medicine, rather than engineering or computer science.  Participants indicated that this is changing, and this was clearly evidenced by the number and enthusiasm of women computer scientists who participated in the focus groups.  Overall, most focus groups concluded with a view that generally men studied engineering whereas women studied medicine.

In the workplace

There is an extremely rapid fall-off in the number of women employed in the digital technology sector, even if it is true that there is little discrimination in the education system against women in STEM subjects.  At best, it was suggested that only a maximum of 10% of employees in tech companies were women.  Moreover, it was often acknowledged that women are mainly employed in sales and marketing functions in such companies, especially if they are attractive, pale skinned and do not wear a hijab or head-scarf.  This is despite the fact that many very able and skilled female computer scientists are educated at universities, and highly capable and articulate women programmers participated in the focus groups.

Women employed in the tech sector

Women employed in the tech sector in Pakistan

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly simply the cultural expectation that young women should be married in their early 20s and no later than 25.  This means that many women graduates only enter the workforce for a short time after they qualify with a degree. Over the last decade overall female participation in the workforce in Pakistan has thus only increased from about 21% to 24%, and has stubbornly remained stable around 24% over the last five years.[11]

Nevertheless, the focus groups drilled down into some of the reasons why the digital technology sector has even less participation of women in it than the national average.  Four main factors were seen as particularly contributing to this:

  • The overwhelming factor is that much of the tech sector in Pakistan is based on delivering outsourced functions for US companies. The need to work long and antisocial hours so as to be able to respond to requests from places in the USA with a 10 (EST) – 13 (PST) hour time difference was seen as making it extremely difficult for women who had household and family duties to be able to work in the sector.  There was, though, also little recognition that this cultural issue might be mitigated by permitting women to work from home.
  • Moreover, both men and women commented that the lack of safe and regular transport infrastructure made it risky for women to travel to and from work, especially during the hours of darkness. The extent to which this was a perceived or real threat was unclear, and there was little recognition that most threats to women are in any case made by men, whose behaviours are therefore still responsible.
  • A third factor was that many offices where small start-up tech companies were based were not very welcoming, and had what several people described as dark and dingy entrances with poor facilities. It was recognised that men tended not to mind such environments, because the key thing for them was to have a job and work, even though these places were often seen as being threatening environments for women.
  • Finally, some women commented that managers and male staff in many tech companies showed little flexibility or concerns over their needs, especially when concerned with personal hygiene, or the design of office space, As some participants commented, men just get on and work, whereas women like to have a pleasant communal environment in which to work.  Interestingly, some men commented that the working environment definitely improved when women were present.

It can also be noted that there are very few women working within the retail and service parts of the digital tech sector.  As the picture below indicates this remains an environment that is very male dominated and somewhat alienating for most women.

tech

Digital technology retail and service shops in Rawalpindi

Changing men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology

The overwhelming response from both men and women to our questions in the focus groups was that it is the culture and social frameworks in Pakistan that largely determine the fact that men and women use digital technologies differently and that there are not more women working in the tech sector.  Moreover, this was not necessarily seen as being a negative thing.  It was described as being merely how Pakistan is.  Many participants did not necessarily see it as being specifically a result of men’s attitudes and behaviours, and several people commented that women also perpetuate these behaviours.  Any fundamental changes to gender digital inequality will therefore require wider societal and cultural changes, and not everyone who participated in the focus groups was necessarily in favour of this.

It was, though, recognised that as people in Pakistan become more affluent, educated and urbanised, and as many adopt more global cultural values, things have begun to change over the last five years.  It is also increasingly recognised that the use of digital technologies is itself helping to shape these changed cultural values.

A fundamental issue raised by our research is whether or not the concern about gender digital equality in so-called “Western” societies actually matters in the context of Pakistan.  Some, but by no means all, clearly thought that it did, although they often seemed more concerned about Pakistan’s low ranking in global league tables than they did about the actual implications of changing male behaviour within Pakistani society.

Many of the participants, and especially the men, commented that they had never before seriously thought about the issues raised in the focus groups.  They therefore had some difficulty in recommending actions that should be taken, although most were eager to find ways through which the tech sector could indeed employ more women.  Both men and women were also very concerned to reduce the harms caused to women by their use of digital technologies.

The main way through which participants recommended that such changes could be encouraged were through the convening of workshops for senior figures in the tech sector building on the findings of this research, combined with much better training for women in technology about how best to mitigate the potential harm that can come to them through the use of digital technologies.

Following the main focus group questions, some of the participants expressed interest in seeing TEQtogether’s existing guidance notes.  Interestingly, they commented that many of the generalisations made in them were indeed pertinent in the Pakistani context, although some might need minor tweeking and clarification when translated into Urdu.

However, two specific recommendations for new guidance notes were made:

  • Tips for CEOs of digital tech companies who wish to attract more female programmers and staff in general; and
  • Guidance for brothers who wish to help their sisters and mothers gain greater expertise and confidence in the use of digital technologies.

These are areas that we will be working on in the future, and hope to have such guidance notes prepared in time for future workshops in Pakistan in the months ahead.

Several men commented that improving the working environment for women in tech companies, and enabling more flexible patterns of work would also go some way to making a difference.  Some  commented how having more women in their workplaces had already changed their behaviours for the better.

 

Acknowledgements

We are extremely grateful to colleagues in COMSATS University Islamabad (especially Dr. Tahir Naeem) and the University of Sindh (especially Dr. M.K. Khatwani) for facilitating and supporting this research.  We are also grateful to those in Riphah International University (especially Dr. Ayesha Butt) and Rawalpindi Women University (especially Prof Ghazala Tabassum), as well as those companies (Alfoze and Cavalier) who helped with arrangements for convening the focus groups.  Above all, we want to extend our enormous thanks to all of the men and women who participated so enthusiastically in this research.  It was an immense pleasure to work with you all.

 

[1] Sey, A. and Hafkin, N. (eds) (2019) Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership, Macau and Geneva: UNU-CS and EQUALS; OECD (2019) Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate, Paris: OECD;

[2] See for example the work of EQUALS which seeks to bring together a coalition of partners working to reduce gender digital equality.

[3] See for example, Manry, J. and Wisler, M. (2016) How male allies can support women in technology, TechCrunch; Johnson, W.B. and Smith, D.G. (2018) How men can become better allies to women, Harvard Business Review.

[4] Especial thanks are due to Silvana Cordero for her important contribution on the specific challenges of translation in Spanish in the Latin American context.

[5] Siegmann , K.A. (no date) The Gender Digital Divide in Rural Pakistan: How wide is it & how to bridge it? Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)/ISS; Tanwir, M. and Khemka, N. (2018) Breaking the silicon ceiling: Gender equality and information technology in Pakistan, Gender, Technology and Development, 22(2), 109-29; see also OECD (2019) Endnote 1.

[6] Gilwald, A. (2018) Understanding the gender gap in the Global South, World Economic Forum,

[7] Chauhan, K. (2014) Patriarchal Pakistan: Women’s representation, access to resources, and institutional practices, in: Gender Inequality in the Public Sector in Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[8] This research builds on our previous research in Pakistan published as Hassan, B, and Unwin, T. (2017) Mobile identity construction by male and female students in Pakistan: on, in and through the ‘phone, Information Technologies and International Development, 13, 87-102; and Hassan, B., Unwin, T. and Gardezi, A. (2018) Understanding the darker side of ICTs: gender, harassment and mobile technologies in Pakistan, Information Technologies and International Development, 14, 1-17.

[9] All names will be listed with appreciation in reports submitted for publication.

[10] Our previous research (Hassan, Unwin and Gardezi, 2018) provides much further detail on the precise types of sexual abuse and harassment that is widespread in Pakistan.

[11] https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Pakistan/Female_labor_force_participation/

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Participating in IFLA’s President’s Meeting and Ministerial Forum, Buenos Aires, 22-23 May 2019

Ministers Forum

Ministers and Secretaries of Culture Forum

It was a real privilege to have been invited to participate in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean on 22nd May, and to give a keynote address at its 2019 President’s meeting which was on the theme of Motors of change: libraries and sustainable development on 23rd May, both in Buenos Aires.  These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for those actively involved in the role of libraries in contributing to the development of Latin American and Caribbean countries to share ideas and experiences, and agree on ways through which their work can be further enhanced.

The Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture was held in the very impressive Congress of the Argentine Nation, and provided an excellent opportunity for senior

President

IFLA President and Secretary General

government officials from across the region to share presentations and discuss the theme of Libraries, Access to Information and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Welcoming participants, IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón reminded them of the theme of her presidency – Motors of Change – and underlined the difference that libraries can make, for so many people, in so many ways.  IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner stressed to the ministers of the power they had in their hands, and made the case for ensuring that they – and libraries – are included fully in national development plans.  A key outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration which affirmed participating governments’ commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda, and to the power of libraries and access to information to achieve it.  The meeting also saw the launch of the second edition of the Development and Access to Information Report produced by IFLA and the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, focusing especially on SDG4 (education), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (inequalities), SDG13 (climate chage) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and edited by Stephen Wyber and Maria Garrido.

In the evening, there was a Cultural Gala in the Public Hall of the Library of the National Congress, which consisted of three main elements:

  • Nacha

    Nacha Guevara

    A dance performance in two parts by the Arte Ballet Compañía: the Don Quijote suite, and Tiempos de Tango, with ideation, choreography and direction by María Fernanda Blanco.

  • Music played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Honorable Argentine Chamber of Deputies with a repertoire dedicated to the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, featuruing especially the saxophone soloist Jorge Retamoza.
  • A wonderful closing sequence of songs by the famous Argentine artist Nacha Guevara.

The 2019 President’s Meeting on 23rd May built on the themes of the Development and Access to Information Report, and began with a session of welcoming speeches by IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner, Alejandro Lorenzo César Santa (General Coordinating Director, Library of the National Congress), and Rene Mauricio Valdes (United Nations Resident Coordinator, Argentina).  This was followed by my keynote  on Libraries and Sustainable Development: challenges of inequality in a digital world (.pdf of slide deck), which:

  • Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 21.00.54Challenged those who believe that the SDGs will deliver on their aspirations;
  • Highlighted the role of digital technologies in leading to increasing inequalities;
  • Explored issues around power, knowledge and content;
  • Advocated for the important role that libraries can serve as open places and communal resource centres; and
  • Concluded by encouraging participants to have the will to make a difference.

In the afternoon, there were three sets of discussions and presentations by the authors of the Development and Access to Information Report and others on the following themes:

  • A Library Response to Global Challenges: What Can Libraries Contribute to International Efforts to Tackle the Issues that Affect the Planet?
  • Driving Development at a Local Level: Libraries Making a Difference to People’s Lives
  • Improving Decision-Making and Accountability: Libraries as Pillars of Democracy and Good Governance

Tango 1

Our great tango teachers!

These two days of lively and interesting discussion provided a wealth of ideas for all those participating from governments and libraries to implement on return to their own countries.  It was also a very valuable opportunity to build a network of people working at the interface between libaries and international development, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Very many thanks are due to the hard work and hospitality of colleagues from IFLA and our Argentian hosts.  One of my lasting memories will definitely be learning to dance the tango – for which many thanks to our brilliant teachers!

 

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Servants of the poor – WSIS TalkX

TalkXIt was a great honour to have been invited – a few hours beforehand – to give one of the inaugural WSIS TalkX presentations last Thursday evening as WSIS 2019 drew towards its close.  Seven of us had been asked if we would like to talk about our lives in technology for around 5 minutes. I opted to go last – just before the closing cocktail party.  Several colleagues had to leave before the end to get to other commitments and so they spoke first; I knew I would be remaining to enjoy the wine.  Before me there were some amazing, inspirational speakers: Stephenie Rodriguez, Joel Radvanyi, Gloria Kimbwala, Ayanna T Samuels, Sebastian Behaghel and Ted Chen

With little time to prepare it was difficult to know quite what to say.  We had been asked to tell our own stories, and so I chose five images as five “scenes” around which to tell my tale.  Posting the images on social media, I had hoped that people might be able to see them as I spoke…

1 2 3 4 5

 

In reality, I’m not sure that many people actually saw the pictures, and I know many were rather confused when I began and introduced myself in the persona of one of my aliases.  I had, though, been introduced by the Master of Ceremonies as someone learning from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah…

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 20.29.34

To see and hear what I had to say, click on the image above (or here).  Fully to understand it, though, you would need to listen to the other six talks, because I tried hard to link it to what the speakers had to say – especially, for example, about the best university in the world, and the SDGs!

The basic message is simple – if we really believe in empowering the poor and the marginalised through digital technologies we must become their servants…

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