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SHE TALKS PEACE: When women were “computers”

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 24 October) — Did you know that in 1939 computers referred to women? At the time, calculations were done with paper and pencil. Women, having the patience and meticulousness, were tapped to do the calculations – computing. Thus, computers.

The first “computer” was Barbara Canright, who was employed by California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to do the calculations needed – from how many rockets were required or how much propellant was needed to launch a rocketship. NASA had their own women computers. I found out about these remarkable women from the movie “Hidden Figures, which told the story of three African American women who did what the men had problems with – provide the calculations for John Glenn’s launch and landing. Watch the movie. It’s worth it!

So why is it that, today, technology is seen as the domain of men? Why are girls and women discouraged from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?

We invited two women in technology to join us on “She Talks Peace,” our podcast: Facebook’s Rahimah “Ima” Abdulrahim, the Director of Public Policy for Southeast Asia (Established Countries) and Microsoft’s Dr. Jasmine Begum, Director of Legal, Corporate & Government Affairs for ASEAN and New Markets. Ima used to be the Executive Director of the highly respected Habibie Foundation (Indonesia), focused on peace, human rights and democracy. Jasmine’s career was in law and policy engagements, including stints at the UNDP and had worked with Koffi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN.

Both felt that technology and social media can be empowering, that women will benefit greatly by embracing technology. Both decry the public perception that only men are qualified for studies and career in STEM. Both also stressed the power of social media to connect people, an integral component of peacebuilding.

And yet social media can also be divisive and destructive. Facebook has been criticized for many years, starting from allegations that it had been used to manipulate elections in the Philippines and other countries to serving as a platform for violent extremism, including the attack of Trump loyalists on the US Capitol last January 6.

Violent extremist groups such as ISIS have been very shrewd in using social media to push their agenda and recruiting netizens, particularly the young. Nobel Prize Awardee Maria Ressa, an insightful resource person in several of our conferences on radicalization, has been sounding the alarm on this pernicious use of social media.

According to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, her Nobel Prize is not just for a journalist defending democracy and human rights but “it is also an indictment of the suffering social media platforms have caused by spreading harmful disinformation and failing to protect women and other marginalized communities from online abuse. Giving Ressa the prize for peace makes a statement we should all keep in mind: Disinformation threatens peace.” (Nina Jankowicz, global fellow at the Wilson Center October 9, 2021)

Ima has seen the power of social media. Facebook, for instance, has evolved from an app to connect students (you needed a university address to join FB in its early years) to one that provides a free platform for the voiceless, allowing any one to participate in democratic discourse.

Listen to their take on how FB and Microsoft are helping to empower the voiceless and the marginalized on our latest episode of She Talks Peace available on Spotify:

Apple Podcasts, and Anchor.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights and democracy)


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