The United Nations has observed International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11 since 2012, with the aim of increasing awareness of the gender-based barriers girls face around the world. This year’s theme focuses on the importance of increasing girls’ access to technology.
There’s little research available on how the digital divide affects girls under 18, but the research that does exist shows that girls around the world access technology at lower rates than boys do, with girls in South Asian countries facing particularly large gaps in access, according to UNICEF — which also released an eight-episode podcast series, “Hidden Heroes,” on Monday that tells the stories of girls around the world making positive impacts in their communities. Less access to technology creates barriers to workforce participation for girls and women and reinforces real-world gender-based inequities, the UNICEF report notes, adding that solutions to closing the gap must take factors around access, digital literacy, and online safety into account.
To commemorate the day, The Lily spoke to three girls and young women around the world who are working to make technology more accessible to other girls.
As the daughter of two engineers, 17-year-old Emily Liu says has long been interested in science. In eighth grade, she grew to love biology: “I liked the idea of being able to understand all of the things going on in our natural world and inside of me,” she said.
But when she attended meetings for her Plymouth, Minn., high school’s science club, she was struck by how few other girls were present: only a handful among more than two dozen boys, she said. And when she tried to recruit other girls to join, “what I kept hearing from my classmates was that they didn’t feel like they were smart enough for these clubs — which I knew not to be true, because I knew how well they did in science classes,” Liu said. “So that was kind of when it hit me that it was also a confidence issue.”
That gender gap persists beyond her school’s walls, too: Women make up only 28 percent of the workforce in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, according to the American Association of University Women, with fast-growing fields like computer science and engineering seeing particularly high gaps. The AAUW report also notes that a combination of gender-based stereotypes, male-dominated work cultures and fewer female role models compared to men contribute to this disparity.
To combat this gender gap, Liu started Science Accelerates Girls’ Excellence — or SAGE — an organization that recruits high school students to teach middle-schoolers free, six-week online courses in STEM fields. Through a combination of word-of-mouth and social media, Liu said, SAGE has served more than 300 students from the United States, Canada, Australia and China since June 2020, offering courses including cybersecurity, website development, genetics, and environmental science, among others. While the classes are open to anyone regardless of gender, about 75 percent of attendees have been girls, according to Liu.
Liu has taught SAGE courses in human anatomy and astronomy, plant biology and evolutionary biology, she said. In that role, she has seen students’ beliefs in their abilities grow: “You can kind of see their confidence in speaking grow over the classes,” she said.
Next year, Liu plans to head to college, with the hope of studying biology and computer science. For now, she and SAGE’s vice president, 16-year-old Alicia Ji, are focused on jump-starting their former students’ STEM careers by turning them into SAGE’s next teachers — that way, “even when I’m unable to do everything I can now [with SAGE], there will be this line of awesome girls that will carry on the legacy and continue it,” Liu said.
Somaya Faruqi traces her passion to robotics back to when she began helping her father, a mechanic, fix cars when she was 6 or 7 years old, she said.
“I thought, ‘It’s interesting for me to work with different machines to fix something,’” 19-year-old Faruqi said.
Today, Faruqi is captain of the Afghan girls’ robotics team — also known as the Afghan Dreamers — which was founded in 2017 in Herat, the country’s third-largest city. Since then, the team has made international headlines for both the success they’ve achieved in international competitions as well as the setbacks they’ve faced.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the team built three robots meant to help in the fight against covid-19, including one that was built to sanitize hospital rooms and another built to sanitize other indoor and outdoor areas — both of which received approval from Afghanistan’s health minister just before Faruqi and eight other girls from the team fled to Doha, Qatar, after the Taliban resumed power in August. The team hopes to continue refining those robots from afar so that they can eventually be used in Afghanistan, Faruqi added. (The third robot, a low-cost ventilator, didn’t receive government approval before their departure, Faruqi said.)
Faruqi and the other girls she left Afghanistan with will finish high school in Qatar on scholarships, she added. Forty other team members remain in Afghanistan, Faruqi said, where the Taliban has banned girls in grades seven through 12 from attending school.
“Everyone has a big dream. I don’t know what will happen,” she said of those girls.
Faruqi hopes to attend university to become a mechanical engineer — and eventually, she wants to return to Afghanistan to build a career and “serve my people,” she said.
“I hope that one day we can see the name of Afghanistan in countries that are top in technology,” she added.
In the meantime, Faruqi has a message for Afghanistan’s new government: “Please let the girls go to school,” she said. “They can make a big change in Afghanistan, they just need the trust, opportunity and support — of their government, of their teachers, and … of the world.”
When Daisy Hampton saw a cover story published by the New York Daily News last October, about a 9-year-old girl in the Bronx, Kimani Anderson, whose school administrator allegedly threatened to contact child services after she missed classes due to her school-issued iPad failing to function properly, Hampton knew she had to help.
“I wanted to reach out and see if anybody had donated her a computer yet. When I reached out and got a response, I found out nobody had,” Hampton said.
A few days later, Hampton used money she earned from a Girl Scout award and donations from her family to buy Anderson a computer.
That wasn’t the first — or the last — computer that Hampton provided to a young person in need: Since the start of the pandemic, Hampton has raised more than $35,000 — most of which has come through a GoFundMe fundraiser — to provide more than 500 devices to kids struggling with remote learning due to lack of computer access, she said.
Research shows that the digital divide affected millions of families during the pandemic: A survey created by the U.S. Census Bureau last spring found that of the 52 million households surveyed with children present, 4.4 million households had a computer available only sometimes, rarely, or never; in the 38 million households where a computer was always present, 60 percent received them from the child’s school or school district.
Most computers Hampton purchased went to kids in New York City public schools, public housing and local organizations (in New York City, 46 percent of households living in poverty do not have broadband Internet access at home, according to a report from the mayor’s office); some also went to students in rural Mississippi — the state with the highest percentage of families lacking Internet access at home, at 42 percent, according to a report prepared by a coalition of civil rights and education groups last August — and to a clinic and a school in Haiti following the August earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people.
Hampton also heads an organization, Including You, that works with more than 100 students in seven states across the country, pairing older kids with younger kids — many of whom experience learning, developmental or physical disabilities or are from lower-income households — to offer homework help, mentorship and friendship, she said.
Hampton started Including You last spring, when it became clear that “all these students were missing out on their education, and I knew this was an issue in schools across the city and across the country” due to the pandemic, she said.
The digital divide “will continue to be a problem” even as we emerge from the pandemic, Hampton said, adding that tackling it is crucial to “a girl’s well-being and success.” Access to technology “opens up the doors for learning,” Hampton added.
For other girls who want to join her in opening that door — and closing the one on the digital divide — she wants them to know: “You can make a difference; you just have to be the person that steps up and starts working toward that change.”