Civic tech is an emerging field that tackles local challenges by bringing together tech practitioners, policymakers, activists, and local organizations to design projects that enhance citizen participation. While driven by democratic ideals, it nonetheless risks falling into the same pitfalls as other design and tech fields, where men hold the majority of jobs. Without inclusivity, there is a danger in trying to create solutions that do not truly meet the needs of the populations they are meant to serve.
The National Democratic Institute is working with civic tech organizations to change the face of politics and advance gender equality in democracy. Code for All is just one of the partner organizations NDI works with to promote inclusivity in the civic tech space.
Sofía Corona is community-of-practice coordinator at Code for All, an international network of civic tech organizations working to advance democracy. “It's really hard for women, especially if you don't have that [tech] background, to recognize yourself as a user and as part of the tech ecosystem,” she said.
Devex spoke with Corona about Code for All’s efforts to diversify the civic tech space and the role women can play in opening up the field to other marginalized groups.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is civic tech, and why do you think it is important for women specifically?
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Civic tech is a very new concept that still doesn’t have a clear definition. When we're talking about civic tech, we're talking about tech that is used to give people a space so they can participate in decision-making processes, give their input, and have a stronger and a closer connection with their government. We're also talking about tech that is used to inform the public about what's happening in their cities, in their governments, and in the environment they live in.
Sometimes it’s very hard to define what is a public issue versus a private issue. Uber, for example, is actually not solving a public problem around transportation; it’s just solving my [personal] problem around transportation. Civic tech is tech that is used to solve something that affects everyone in the community, not just my personal interest.
But also — and I see it as a woman in Mexico who is also fighting for certain rights, like access to abortion, reproductive rights, and so on — we have been fighting for our rights traditionally in the physical space, and that fight has now been translated into digital spaces.
And while technology enables to do a lot of things, it has also enabled online violence against women to be perpetrated, because the power dynamics that we see in the physical spaces also replicate in the digital spaces. So, I think it's important for us to own those spaces and to make ourselves and our struggles visible.
Have you faced any challenges as a female leader in the civic tech space? If so, how did you deal with them?
I think my biggest struggle has been owning the space and recognizing myself as part of this civic tech ecosystem, even though I don't have a tech background. It's really hard for women, especially if you don't have that background, to recognize yourself as a user and as part of the tech ecosystem, because the tech and the science fields have been traditionally dominated by men, and the coding knowledge and the tech knowledge have been traditionally dominated and monopolized by men.
When I started to work in civic tech, there were a lot of concepts and ideas that I didn’t understand, and I didn't feel comfortable asking questions, because there were mostly men in the room. I didn't feel like the environment was encouraging me to ask questions. But by talking to other women and understanding that their struggle was the same as mine, I realized that I wasn't alone.
For me, it's also: How can I recognize myself as a Latina woman in the civic tech ecosystem? Because I don’t see many other Latinas in those spaces. For example, in the Code for All network, most of the people speak English. One of my personal fights has been trying to open up the spaces not only to women in general, but to women from the Latin community.
“To make the tech sector more gender-inclusive, we as women need to open up spaces for everyone, not just for us.”— Sofía Corona, community-of-practice coordinator, Code for All
How does Code for All design projects so they are inclusive of women? Can you provide some concrete examples?
Code for All is a network of around 32 organizations that work in civic tech in different parts of the world. We ourselves don’t run tech projects, and we don’t build technology. What we do is we connect organizations, we connect projects, and we give some funding.
Having said that, one of the things that we do is having consultations on topics we consider that the network needs to work on. And one of those topics last year was equity and inclusion.
The idea was to go through each organization’s internal policies and discuss how to be more equitable as an ecosystem and a network. Our networking language is English, so how can we make room for people who don't feel comfortable speaking in English or whose English is maybe not so good? So, it's thinking about: How can we make spaces for the different profiles that we have within the network?
For the projects that we fund, we also try to give more space to underrepresented regions and to give a bit more emphasis on problems that are in marginalized communities.
Finally, what are some ways the tech sector could be more gender-inclusive?
It’s important to have more representation, and to be able to talk to each other as women about our struggles. But to make the tech sector more gender-inclusive, we as women need to open up spaces for everyone, not just for us. By being in the margins, we can understand what being in the margins means.
If I'm in a position of power, how can I make the space more open and more inclusive for the rest of women and for Black communities, for Latino communities, for Indigenous communities, for LGBTQ communities? How can we, as women, find more reflexive, inclusive, and empathic ways to use technology? And how can we use our feminism to understand technology and to create technology that is less harmful? I think those are important questions.
Visit the Voices of Change series for more coverage on how far women have come in changing politics, how much more needs to be done — and importantly, how women from all generations and walks of life can work together to make women in politics the norm. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #VoicesOfChange.