Exploring the intersection of gender and equity online
This report is a collaboration of data and findings by myself and the team at Every1Mobile who were leaders behind the development, curation and analysis of the online platform.
Working at the intersection of gender issues and equity online has required us to really dig into what it means to develop safe spaces for women online. This year I’ve been asking myself many questions including what do safe places look like, how do they make people feel and how can we foster an open, shared and collaborative learning space for women online.
Among the many new projects undertaken this year, an exciting one was to collaborate with Every1Mobile to dig into these questions and develop a safe online learning space for women within our network. This aligned very well with our goal of creating a more inclusive and safe space web for women while also allowing us the opportunity to create learning spaces for women within our network beyond the physical learning setting.
We decided to test this pilot within our new expansion of Mozilla Clubs for women and girls, a project with UN Women that aimed to increase key digital skills among women and girls through in-person local learning groups in South Africa and Kenya. By working with our club leaders we were able to develop a mobile optimized website that is optimized for use across all devices including non-smartphones. It was designed to further facilitate the digital curriculum they used in their regular meet-ups. The website created an online community where club participants and leaders could engage and connect with other learners online and continue learning following their physical meet up was over through an online digital literacy curriculum. All on their own time. The goal was to on-board 100 learners to engage in the platform in the seven month pilot.
The mobile-optimized site, called My Mozilla Club, was designed for individuals to use it wherever they were, regardless of whether they had a smartphone or a feature phone. It was specifically designed with low-bandwidth in mind to keep data charges low and make the app more accessible which meant it didn’t include media (pictures, videos etc.) and allowing users to turn on ‘low-bandwidth options’’. When designing the website, we discussed the type of community, conversations and experiences the participants wanted and needed. Every step of the website was considered, including how to make women feel comfortable when signing up for the app and details that would make them feel more comfortable once there. After analyzing and testing an appropriate structure, the website was formatted into the following sections:
A section for learning and practicing skills taught in Mozilla Club sessions. We structured this section in the style of an e-learning course. The goal was for users to be able to partake in a series of activities that would build on one another. We started off by re-purposing a number of existing Mozilla activities, but found many of these difficult to re-purpose for mobile, therefore we also included purpose built activities around topics that were requested by Club Captains and learners. Chapters include web basics, online tracking: all about cookies, how to stay safe online, how to make your password stronger, ways to spot a secure web site, cyberbullying and how you can stop it. Each chapter consisted of a number of pages or activities designed to teach participants about the topic, as well as a final quiz to test what was learned.
Connect & Share
A forum including discussions on various topics related to digital literacy and the web, designed as a space where Learners and Club Captains across Kenya and South Africa can come together and talk about issues they cared about.
A section designed to allow all Mozilla Club participants to share videos, pictures or links related to anything they are learning or practicing, inside or outside of their clubs.
Mozilla Club Spotlight
A section where Mozilla Club leaders and learners could nominate one another, or someone outside of the clubs, to be featured as an inspiring individual to the women in technology community.
Your Opinions & Ideas
A section that allowed club learners to share their thoughts on the site, and the club program as well as to make suggestions for what else they want to see and learn.
A section only available to Club Captains / Regional Coordinators; this space was dedicated to a teacher-to-teacher exchange.
Over our pilot period (April through October) we tracked weekly site statistics to try and understand the uptake of the site among our learners. Here is a snapshot of some of the results:
- 136 registered users on the site. 99 registered Learners and 37 Coordinators / Captains
- 453 total visits. 98 total Learner visits and 255 total Coordinator / Captain visits
- 15 clubs engaged (4 in Kenya; 11 in South Africa)
- The age breakdown of Learners ranged from 13 to 66 years old
Every1Mobile community managed the site which involved keeping content refreshed and responding to user comments to keep the community alive. This was key to reaching these engagement figures.While on the platform there were members of the team engaged and ready to facilitate in any conversation. Members of the local Every1Mobile team visited club sessions and answered questions, gave tutorials and provided face-to-face support. We found that the more we connected directly with the users on the ground, the higher the engagement would be. Here’s a blog post from Mozilla Club Inkwenkwezi on their successful day sharing the app with learners and meeting with the Every1Mobile team in Cape Town.
Though we hit our target numbers and achieved our objectives, I had to wonder if we really created a safe learning space online that women wanted to join. Through our research and understanding of online spaces, I truly think we did achieve a safe space online but when thinking of how learners were able to optimize the space, I realized we still have so much to learn. In a quick analysis it started becoming evident, our hypothesis for women’s capacity to engage with online platforms and content was far from what we expected, particularly for women over 40.
The apps greatest success was from our learning of how women did and did not engage online.
You see, it was our hypothesis that the women and girls would want to use the website and engage with it regularly as part of the Mozilla Club experience but truthfully, this wasn’t always the case. While all participants were excited to have the website and wanted it to be available for them to use, engagement levels were not nearly as high as we had hoped they would be. Individuals wanted the website but that excitement didn’t transfer over to actually using it.
I started to have 1–1 conversation with our local program leads to understand the issues they were facing that provided this disconnect. They shared many concerns related to access including,
- Many clubs focused on teaching to girls in high school and younger which meant mobile (and even computer) adoption was still low in that age group. The learners did not have access to web-enabled phones, smartphones or computers to access the site outside of a club setting.
- For those that did have access to a web-enabled phone or computer, there were large concerns over data usage and having to pay out-of-pocket to engage on the platform.
- Many clubs were in low-income areas where access to Internet was low and their clubs were run entirely offline. This means they weren’t able to test, explore or experience the site in a comfortable physical environment that encouraged usage outside of the club.
- In clubs where we had older participants, language was a barrier to women coming online and participating. While English is known by many, older generations were still used to reading and feeling most comfortable engaging in their native languages.
- Participants still struggled with Internet basics such as creating profiles and registering accounts. Large amounts didn’t even have email addresses and faced barriers because of low site literacy.
So with that in mind, we decided to make some changes to address the problems we heard. The Every1Mobile team attended more sessions locally to provide real people behind the website and took their in-person learning back into content suggestions. We worked on providing more access to internet and resources. We also worked on communication channels and did regular share-outs on content updates with club leaders so they would be better equipped to know what was happening on the site and share that back with learners. We even ran contests where weekly participants would be entered to win free data.
And with all those changes and monitoring usage data closely, we still didn’t see the uptake we were hoping for. Participation on the website would spike during the session but then engagement would again drop outside of the learning space.
So what now? We needed to go further and get to the root of the problem. This time we dug deeper into conversations with our learners to understand their user behavior that was affecting their engagement. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:
- People understood the expectation to come into a club and share in a physical space but they were still hesitant to share online even if a safe space had been established. For many club members, especially the older ones, they were still uncomfortable sharing info or photos online. Fear over privacy and security remained a large barrier to women sharing with each other and not having regular access to Internet, smartphones and computers further inhibited them.
- Individuals thought that they could get the same type of learning on Facebook or other social media platforms. They were using social media to gather their news and as a learning platform. There was also a level of expectations that they don’t have to exit their social media platforms, that apps should be integrated within them and come to where they are. When asked if they would be more engaged with the website if it were a Facebook group, individuals were inclined to say yes.
- Usage and engagement with all mobile apps, other than social media ones, was actually quite low. This particular group did not have or use many apps on their smartphones (if they had them). While they found apps exciting, especially those targeted to them, they still don’t find themselves engaging on them. This was further identified when we learned that majority of site visits occurred through a desktop computer.
- Online incentives were appealing, but not effective. In an effort to increase site usage, we ran weekly competitions in which we planned to reward a bit of airtime to one winner per week for taking part in an activity on the site. We communicated this to the Club Captains but unfortunately we saw extremely limited participation and no uptake in site usage as a result of these competitions. We’re still not sure why this was the case and the behaviours of women to online contests.
We went in with the intention to create a safe and fun learning space that women would want to participate as a compliment to their in-person learning. Instead, we stumbled across deep-rooted barriers that have prevented women in participating online. Our learning as it related to user behaviour online for women was my most successful part of the pilot. It shared a level of understanding of how women approach the Internet and technology that no data could have ever done. The more our hypothesis and experiments were tested, the more we uncovered on how this group does (and does not) engage online. How fear over privacy or security online, affinity for social media and lack of interest in mobile apps were common behaviours of women and issues that needed more attention. We also learned how we, and the web, need to better understand behaviours of women to build a better Internet for them. This. This is the most exciting next step for me.
And we’re only at the tip of the iceberg of understanding how to do this.
I’m eager to dive deeper into the research and examine how to develop programs and tools that are comfortable and beneficial to women and girls. While still digging into building safe spaces online, I’m interested in learning how to build online content, services, apps or programs for women that they actually use. Places they can get excited from and get benefit from using. I’m also ready to go deeper into the platform with Every1Mobile and do more testing, as well as potentially open up the platform to a wider audience.
We’re putting pieces together and coming back in 2017 with more research and hypothesis to build (or break). Stay tuned!