By Kate Mays
“When I was Secretary of State, I decided that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy. Not just because I am a feminist but because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered … So I think that it behooves us, those of us that live in various countries where we do have an economic and political voice, that we need to help other women, and I really dedicated myself to that, both at the UN and then as Secretary of State.”—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a December 2010 TED Talk
Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has published the Global Gender Gap Report because “clos[ing] global gender gaps [is] a key element of our mission to improve the state of the world.” The report finds that the more a country utilizes its female half of the population, the better off that country is. In recent years, the US has emphasized women’s rights as key foreign policy objective, including the creation in 2009 of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s issues.
John Worne, in his piece “Schools, Hospitals, or Cultural Relations?,” presents an International Relations positioning spectrum that ranges from “giving” (aid) to “fighting” (military action). Cultural relations spans the middle points on the spectrum: “helping, sharing and boasting” (access, influence, and messaging). Worne justifies spending on cultural relations because, “at its best, cultural relations means more ‘helping and sharing’, less ‘shouting and fighting’ and maybe one day a less urgent need to ‘give.’” Considering the correlation between women’s greater participation in society and that society’s prosperity, it makes sense for the US to focus some of its efforts and resources on bringing women to the table; eventually, hopefully, those women will reach out and do the same for others in their society.
A current initiative that strives to “help and share” is TechWomen, a US-based mentorship program that connects emerging female tech entrepreneurs from the Middle East and Africa with American women mentors who come mostly from Silicon Valley tech companies. These “Emerging Leaders” are paired with both professional and cultural mentors, to foster not only professional development opportunities but also to facilitate mutual understanding and cultural acclimation during their time in America. A public-private partnership, TechWomen is an initiative of the State Department and managed by the Institute of International Education.
Announced in April 2010, TechWomen piloted in Spring 2011, bringing over to the US 37 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian territories, where they engaged in a five-week project-based mentorship that included professional networking as well as a concluding trip to DC for workshops. The program was enough of a success in 2011 that it not only continued in 2012 but also expanded to include women from Tunisia and Yemen. In 2013, it’s expanding even more to include women from Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The Emerging Leaders are all women who have already begun careers in the tech industry; the idea is to develop them further to become real leaders in their field.
TechWomen is notable for its dual focus on empowering women through education, and focusing that education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The initiative was developed in response to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, where he called for greater collaboration between the American and Muslim populations to address seven main issues. TechWomen hits on two: women’s rights and economic development and opportunity (through the development of science and technology).
The program has both short-term and long-term goals. In the immediate, of course, the goal is to bolster the mentees’ skills, by sharing tips and ideas, and building their confidence. A main theme in the stories shared on TechWomen’s blog speaks to the power of simply providing a common and supportive space in which these women would feel comfortable vocalizing their ideas. In the case of Evelyn Zoubi, the validation she received from her peers and mentor for her idea (eCloset.me, a website that digitizes wardrobes), was empowering and invigorating. For another Emerging Leader, Thekra, the most powerful workshop taught her to “speak the thoughts I have and not be afraid to take some risks.” These outcomes – confidence-building, creating a network of support and ideas – are mostly intangible, but are nonetheless important in creating a large, sustainable TechWomen network in the Middle East and Africa.
There are so far some real tangible outcomes to the program as well. The mentorship is project-based, so the mentees pick up practical skills and learn more about the tech field from mentors who are on the cutting-edge of the industry. They are also afforded opportunities to network with other leaders in the field to pitch their ideas. Evelyn’s pitch led to a connection with a US organization. Thekra’s idea, EduGirl – an NGO that would build a mentorship model to educate girls in neglected areas in Jordan – encompasses both the skills she learned through her mentorship, and touches on the longer-term goal for TechWomen, which is that the Emerging Leaders will go back to their countries and share their knowledge, to become mentors themselves for younger generations of women in STEM.
While the main focus of TechWomen is to expand opportunities and education, another major tool of cultural diplomacy is woven throughout the program: exchange. During their stay in the US, the Emerging Leaders have opportunities to visit schoolsto see the American education system in action. The program also encourages a two-way exchange. Once the 5-week program is complete, TechWomen mentor delegations travel to some of the mentees’ countries to “focus on: expanding networks of women in the technology sectors, creating and strengthening partnerships, and ensuring the sustainability of Mentor/Emerging Leader relationships.” (excerpted from the TechWomen website. In a video appeal for more TechWomen mentors, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasizes not only the benefits for the mentees, but the opportunity for growth and enrichment for the US mentors.
Hillary Clinton’s appeal for more mentors from American tech companies.
Speaking of the blog, the technical communication infrastructure around the TechWomen initiative seems to be an important piece of its sustainability: there is a robust website, an active presence on social media, and a blog that posts throughout the year. While US mentorship only occurs in the fall, and the delegations take a few trips after that, the conversation around TechWomen appears year-long, so that engagement remains fairly active.
To my mind, TechWomen has been a successful program because of its specificity in mission and audience. The ambitious vision of creating a professional network that can support the next generation of women leaders in technology in the Middle East and Africa (and continue to be self-perpetuating within the regions) is grounded in concrete efforts like the projects-based mentorship, professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. Hopefully the success of these kinds of initiatives will lead to others with larger targeted audiences – opening up educational opportunities for women who are not already on a career path. TechGirls is a promising initiative that reaches younger women to encourage careers in science and technology. Thekra’s EduGirl is a great example of the next step for this movement – an initiative that comes from within the region and reaches out to disadvantaged girls and women.
Kate Mays is a graduate student at the George Washington University.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.