Date of Defense:
April 20, 2018
Digital technology and internet access can offer a range of economic, social, and political opportunities to users (GSMA, 2015; UNESCO, 2015). However, a widespread gender gap exists for internet access, meaning these potential benefits are less likely to reach women (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2017). In low- and middle-income countries this gap is especially salient as women are about 50 percent less likely to be connected to the internet than men, even when they are in the same age group and have similar income and education levels (World Wide Web Foundation, 2015).
This digital gender divide is also present in the United States and is particularly noticeable among low-income households and Black Americans (Pew Research Center, 2017). There is less research about internet use and access among women from African immigrant groups. It is possible that the digital gender divide is even wider in this group, given that the Africa region has the lowest percentage of internet users compared to other regions (Pew Research Center, 2017). In the state of Minnesota, countries from which the most African immigrants have originated (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria) have some of the worst internet penetration rates in the world (Minnesota Compass, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2017). Therefore, African immigrant women in Minnesota may lack the knowledge, skills, or motivation for using the internet.
Given that internet access, combined with its potential benefits, can serve to promote women’s well-being (APC, 2015), more research is warranted on internet use among African immigrant women in Minnesota. Findings can then be used to develop specific solutions to close the probable digital gender gap in this population.
Find Your Power (FYP) is a startup nonprofit organization with a vision for women everywhere to be able to fully access and utilize the internet for their own personal, professional, and financial advancement. In pursuit of this vision, the mission of FYP is to create a global digital platform, connecting underrepresented women to relevant content, services, and opportunities which improve their livelihoods. FYP is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and currently has 14 team members who are all working pro bono. This field experience contributed to the organization’s strategic plan by outlining a community-based participatory needs assessment to clarify the feasibility of providing a digital platform specific to African immigrant women in the Twin Cities, as well as desired format and content.
As one learning objective of the field experience (“Apply theoretical, practical, and methodological evaluation skills in a program setting”), I developed a needs assessment plan with the aim to better understand internet access and use among African immigrant women living in the Twin Cities metro. During the period of my field experience, this needs assessment remained at the planning stages as its implementation was contingent upon future funding.
To enable FYP to generate a richly detailed account of internet access and use among African immigrant women, I developed a case-study design for the needs assessment that will collect both quantitative and qualitative data. The plan employs mixed methods, including focus groups, semi-structured key informant interviews, and web-based surveys to measure variables of interest. Additionally, the plan includes extensive details and instructions to support the Executive Director in engaging with partners at a future date; for example, sampling methodology, participant recruitment protocol, and focus group discussion script and prompts.
The developed evaluation tools and methodology are reflective of a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) model, which emphasizes respect for diversity, cultural values, community strengths, co-learning, and power-sharing (Belone et al., 2016). A CBPR model will allow FYP to identify the resources currently available to African immigrant women in the Twin Cities. These resources can then be leveraged with an internet-focused innovation to improve women’s quality of life. FYP’s community organization partners will also use the information gathered to assess and improve their service delivery priorities. Finally, engagement of local immigrant women can be enhanced as they will be included in discussions about their needs and assets.
In developing the needs assessment plan, I came to realize that using mixed methods for a study design would be more time-consuming and resource-intensive than if we chose only one method. Additionally, CBPR techniques could be more time-intensive as seeking input from the community and using mutual learning and negotiation strategies may entail a longer process than if we just decided and acted on the issue ourselves.
Another valuable lesson I learned was how to communicate about research methodology in an assessible way. The Executive Director of FYP has little experience in this domain, so I needed to thoroughly and accessibly explain such things as the rationale for using mixed methods, the process for developing indicators and formulating research questions, and how to conduct and analyze focus groups discussions. This close collaboration was necessary to ensure the aims of the needs assessment aligned with the Executive Director’s strategic vision for FYP and that the organization had sufficient technical capacity to enact the plan in the future.
The capability to conduct CBPR methods is an asset for FYP given that their main end users are underrepresented women. After learning from the formative research conducted during the planned needs assessment specific to Minnesota’s African immigrant women, FYP should continue to employ CBPR techniques when developing and testing a digital platform for this group. Poor social and cultural acceptance is a pervasive problem to internet adoption and use among women (McKinsey, 2014). To increase women’s internet access, organizations need to focus on local adoption and use and cultural acceptance (World Economic Forum, 2016). By respecting diversity, cultural values, community strengths, co-learning, and power-sharing through CBPR, FYP can ensure that any future internet-focused innovation developed is practical, relevant, and beneficial for Minnesota’s African immigrant women.
In summary, this field experience allowed me to assist a start-up non-profit in developing a needs assessment plan to better understand internet use among African immigrant women in Minnesota. I developed skills and competencies in working alongside professionals from various sectors, incorporating community-based participatory techniques into the planning of formative research, and considering global issues, such as the digital gender divide, at the local level. These activities further enhanced my graduate education in Maternal and Child Health and Global Health from the University of Minnesota. By incorporating CBPR principles in their continuing work, FYP has the potential to advance well-being of African immigrant women in the Twin Cities through increased access to the internet and the economic, social, and political opportunities it can provide.
APC. (2015). How technology issues impact women’s rights: 10 points on Section J.
Belone, L., Lucero, J., Duran, B., Tafoya, G., Baker, E., Chan, D., … Wallerstein, N. (2016). Community-based participatory research conceptual model: Community partner consultation and face validity. Qualitative Health Research, 26(1), 117–135. http://doi.org/10.1177/1049732314557084.
Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. (2017). Working group on the digital gender divide, recommendations for action: bridging the gender gap in Internet and broadband access and use.
GSMA. (2015). Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries.
McKinsey. (2014). Offline and falling behind: Barriers to internet adoption. http://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/dotcom/client_service/high%20tech/pdfs/f line_and_falling_behind_full_report.ashx.
Minnesota Compass. (2017). Population trends: population by nativity. http://www.mncompass.org/immigration/population-trends#1-10784-d.
Pew Research Center. (2017). Internet/broadband fact sheet. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact sheet/internet-broadband/.
UNESCO. (2015). Mobile phones & literacy: Empowerment in women’s hands – A cross-case analysis of nine experiences.
World Wide Web Foundation. (2015). Women’s rights online: Translating access into empowerment. http://webfoundation.org/docs/2015/10/womens-rightsonline21102015.pdf.