Women Tapping Technology

The Personal Democracy Forum, titled “Rebooting the System,” took place in New York City six weeks ago.  Producers Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry put together a two-day event that examined “the big picture of how politics is being reshaped by internet-powered mass participation.” My focus was to learn how technology was impacting women’s issues, the dissemination of information, and the role that women were playing in this arena.

New voices are flooding into all levels of communication.  Mark Pesce, “digital ethnologist,” gave stats asserting that “half the planet of earth owns mobile phones,” and “43,000,000 text messages were sent in 2007.”

Katrin Verclas, Co-Founder and Editor of MobileActive.org spoke to me enthusiastically about how wireless technology is becoming a force for social change.  “It is a lifeline for those who are victims of domestic violence.  It gives people social capital, especially to women who become mobilized.”  She discussed the impact on various communities, and sited HIV positive women using the connection to remind each other to “take their meds.”  Verclas told me, “Women in their 30’s and 40’s are the fastest growing demographic for texting and cell phone usage.”  She referenced Corinne Ramey’s article exploring the use of mobile phones (both nationally and internationally) to fight domestic violence and sexual trafficking, and to disseminate information on reproductive health and economic opportunities.  In October, the organization will be co-producing a global summit about mobile technology for social impact taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Co-founder and CEO of SaysMe.tv, Lisa Eisenpresser, is striving to democratize television by having individuals produce their own 30-second ads.  “You choose your message and you choose your market,” Eisenpresser said.  Giving me some back-story she explained, “My whole career has been about giving people tools that turn them from being passive consumers of media into active producers of it.”  Markets are targeted and identified by zip code.

Eisenpresser came up with the idea that instead of people writing checks to support candidates or issues, they could “choose their message” and then runs ads with their names attached.  It was designed as a unique way to endorse a personal point of view, and to say, “This is what I care about, and you should too.”  A not-for-profit organization gets royalties, plus the media buy, every time a supporter purchases an ad on their behalf.  Currently, this approach can be seen on the Winning Message Action Fund website.  An ad that can be bought through SaysMe.tv questions McCain about the “dangers of banning abortion and treating women like criminals.”

The growth arc will eventually encompass a way to promote everything — from causes to products to events.  For Eisenpresser, being female has not created any stumbling blocks.  She acknowledged that the “tech field is still dominated by men,” but believes that doesn’t stop “tenacious women from turning good ideas into businesses.”  She said, “The one woman-in-the-room syndrome” can be an asset.”  She related a story about her experience at the Intel CEO Summit where she had to do a 90-second “elevator pitch.”  Eisenpresser said she ”made a lot of connections because she stood out.”

Blogging about Iranian culture and political affairs is how Mina Zand Siegel brings visibility to gender equality.  She said, “Women’s issues are very important.  I’m adamant about it.”  In her posts on “IranWrites” she probes topics ranging from the hejab to her reaction Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.  On life in Iran she observed, “Women are the strongest and most organized groups.  They are also the most threatening thing to the Islamic Republic.”

I was able to sit down with Tracy Russo, who served as the deputy director of online communication for John Edwards (and appears in the well traversed YouTube clip about John McCain and the Internet).  “Politics is male-dominated,”she said.  You cross that with technology which is male dominated, and it creates a problem.  It changes the dynamic when you’re the only woman.”  Her response to this situation, and the realization that young women don’t have mentors, motivated her to create WIPT (Women in Politics & Technology).  Russo continued, “I took these women that I knew and put them together – virtually.  You connect women, create a safe space, share information, and discuss workplace issues.”  Russo emphasized, “It’s a new field that is not well defined.  More women have to be brought into the ranks.”  She envisions “the new girls club” developed through “blog outreach and online training.”  Her philosophy is to start all prompts with “Don’t be scared.”

Her other advice, particularly appropriate for all those assembled to create change, was “No one gives you permission to be a leader.”

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