• Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 23 February 2021

Technology as the key to women’s empowerment: a scoping review

  • April Mackey   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7069-5843 1 &
  • Pammla Petrucka 1  

BMC Women's Health volume  21 , Article number:  78 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Information and communications technologies (ICTs) have empowered people to communicate and network at a global scale. However, there is lack of in-depth understanding of the use of ICTs for women's empowerment. This study examines how the concept empowerment is defined, utilized and measured in research studies, the existing evidence on the use of ICTs for women’s empowerment and the gaps in knowledge at the global level.

The authors’ conducted a scoping review using the Arksey and O’Malley methodology. The search identified papers from ten databases, including Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete over the period of 2012–2018. Search criteria included articles that focused on women’s empowerment and utilized technologies as interventions. Out of a total of 4481 articles that were initially identified, 51 were included.

Technology played a variety of roles in supporting the development of women’s capacities and resources. Results revealed the use of ICT interventions in the overarching areas of outreach (e.g., health promotion), education (e.g., health literacy opportunities), lifestyle (e.g., peer coaching and planning), prevention (e.g., screening opportunities), health challenges (e.g., intimate partner violence apps), and perceptions of barriers (i.e., uptake, utilization and ubiquity to ICTs for women). Despite the positive use of technology to support women in their daily lives, there was a lack of consensus regarding the definition and use of the term empowerment. The concept of empowerment was also inconsistently and poorly measured in individual studies making it difficult to determine if it was achieved.

This scoping review provides a comprehensive review of current and emerging efforts to use ICTs to empower women. The findings suggest a need for collaborative efforts between researchers, program implementers and policy makers as well as the various communities of women to address the persistent gender disparities with respect to ICTs.

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The term women’s empowerment emerged in the 1970s in response to the need for social justice and gender equality [ 1 , 2 ]. As the term evolved in the 1990s, it was increasingly applied to women who were oppressed and lacking the freedom of choice and action to shape their lives, as well as to discuss women’s participation across multiple sectors in society. More recently it has been used as an outcome and a goal to be achieved is to balance the scales of gender equality and equity. For this research, the definition used regarding women’s empowerment is a process by which women who have experienced oppression acquire the ability to make autonomous and strategic life choices based on their personal priorities. Empowerment is achieved when a woman has the resources, agency, and capabilities to execute decisions on matters of importance [ 3 , 4 ].

Globally women are more likely to experience less favourable social determinants of health (such as over-representation of women in low-paying, insecure employment; lower education and literacy levels amongst rural and immigrant women) than their male counterparts. Women carry the bulk of responsibility for raising children and meeting household obligations, which, globally, contribute to this continued disadvantage [ 5 , 6 , 7 ]. Due to a lack of affordable and quality daycare, women are over-represented in part-time work force, and often remain within low-income bracket [ 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 ]. Gender, as a social determinant of health, is influenced by the “gendered” norms of the roles, personality traits, attitudes, relative power, and influence that society ascribes to it [ 9 , 10 ]. The transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 saw the emergence of Target 5 which aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (p. 20) [ 11 ]. A major SDG indicator supporting attainment of women’s empowerment is “enhancing the use of enabling technology by increasing the proportion of women and girls who have access” (p. 20) [ 11 ].

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have catalyzed communication and networking between and among people on a global scale. However, as ICTs have become ubiquitous and grown in both type and access, a digital divide has emerged. This divide parallels gaps in social contexts, such as income and education, as those who use and benefit from access to technologies often have other resources more readily available [ 12 ]. This divide widens the inequity and inequality gaps based on gender, age, disability, or socioeconomic status [ 13 , 14 ].

Women’s empowerment and ICTs have been the subject of global goals, discussions, and debates for many decades [ 15 , 16 ]. Global discussions, such as the 1995 World Conference on Women: Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, deliberated and advocated for the inclusion of women in the information society in order to fully achieve women’s empowerment in connection with ICT. In 2013, 200 million more men had access to the internet than women [ 17 ]. Women use ICTs much less frequently and intensely than men [ 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 ] In 2016, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) stated that the percentage of women gaining access to ICT is actually decreasing—with women utilizing ICTs 11% less than men in 2013 and 12% less than men in 2016 [ 19 ]. The most recent 2018 report indicated that the overall proportion of internet usage for women was 12% lower than men [ 19 ].

The extant evidence lacks sufficient depth and detail as to exactly how ICTs are being used by women and why they use it less frequently. An important aspect of empowerment in the context of ICTs is gaining a clearer picture as to the type of technologies and technological interventions being used by women. Many authors agree that improved access to ICTs can assist in providing women with employment resources and opportunities that could narrow the gender wage gap, assist in making education and health information more accessible, contribute to the end of violence against women, and lead to women’s empowerment and leadership [ 15 , 22 , 23 , 24 ].

The objectives of this research were to: determine how the concept of empowerment is defined, utilized, and measured in research studies; explore existing evidence regarding the use of ICTs as interventions towards achieving women’s empowerment; and explore the gaps in knowledge and research on this topic from an individual, community, and global perspective.

This research involved a scoping review, which is methodologically similar to a systematic review, to provide a rigourous synthesis of existing evidence [ 25 , 26 ] For the purpose of this study, the scoping review framework used was described by Arksey and O’Malley [ 27 ] as a five-step process with an optional sixth step. These steps include: (1) identifying the research question, as the starting point to guide the search strategy; (2) identifying relevant studies, which involved the development of a comprehensive search strategy to ensure accurate and complete results; (3) selecting studies, which involved developing a-priori inclusion and exclusion criteria that were revised throughout the review process, as familiarity with the evidence increased; (4) charting the data, which involved charting and sorting key material from the results into themes and trends; (5) collating, summarizing, and reporting the results, which involved presenting the results as a narrative; and (6) consulting with relevant stakeholders, which is contingent upon time and resource considerations. For the purposes of this research, the sixth step was not performed.

Review protocol, team, and management

To ensure transparency, rigour, reproducibility, and consistency, protocols were developed prior to the start of the research, for the inclusion criteria, search strategy, and data characterization. This helped to ensure an unbiased approach to the search protocol and to enhance rigour [ 27 ]. These are available upon request. The scoping review was conducted by a team of individuals with multi-disciplinary capabilities in nursing, knowledge synthesis methodologies, and ICTs. The primary reviewers included the lead and co-authors, as well as one research assistant. In addition, a University librarian was consulted throughout the search term selection process to ensure completeness and accuracy of search terms as well as a comprehensive and complete search strategy.

Any and all potentially relevant citations identified throughout all stages were imported into EndNote™, a reference management software, where duplicates were removed by the program and then double checked, and manually removed by the lead author; the list of citations was then imported into a web-based electronic systematic review management platform, DistillerSR™. The screening for article relevance, up to the data extraction stages, were conducted using this software. Two reviewers (i.e., lead author and research assistant) were involved throughout the selection and analysis process to ensure consistency, adherence to the inclusion/exclusion criteria, relevance to the research question, as well as the categorization of data into themes and patterns. As part of this process, all articles were screened by the lead author and research assistant. Any discrepancies were brought forward to the co-author who made an independent decision whether to include or exclude the article.

Review intent and scope

This was part of a broader study aimed at addressing the following question: What is the global impact of ICTs on women’s empowerment? The current review aimed to examine the concept of empowerment, while exploring the evidence on ICTs as interventions for achieving women’s empowerment at the individual, community, and global levels.

Search strategy

The authors ensured identification of relevant and suitable publications by creating a search strategy protocol prior to retrieving evidence from a variety of sources. As per Arksey and O'Malley [ 27 ], the following avenues were reviewed as part of the search strategy: searching relevant electronic databases, reviewing reference lists of pertinent articles to identify additional sources, and manually searching key journals.

To ensure the search was comprehensive, the following databases, available through the University of Saskatchewan library, were searched on November 30, 2016 and updated on January 1, 2018: Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete. The COCHRANE Library was also searched for any relevant trials in the trial registry. Limits placed on the search included: English only, no book reviews, publications dated 2012–2017, and the protocol was pretested in Scopus and Soc Index using select key words including “women” and “empowerment” and “technology.” An illustration of the search term strategy is presented in Table 1 .

Search terms were drawn from the research question, as well as from lengthy discussions with the university librarian and expanded upon based on a cursory search of two databases. To determine the range and breadth of key terms, an initial limited search of two databases was conducted yielding several papers. These databases were determined in consultation with the university librarian and included Scopus and Gender Studies. These papers were then analyzed for similar keywords, definitions, analogies, and index terms that were relevant synonyms to the initial search words [ 28 , 29 ]. These additional terms were added to a master list that informed the final search strategy. Specifically, for the term empowerment, keywords were chosen that could provide results that included a lack of empowerment as well, thus the inclusion of “barrier” and “disempower”. The other search terms came directly from key articles and databases and were demonstrated to be the most common variations on the term “empower”. An additional term that was used interchangeably with “empower” was “agency”, however, as this term is used more frequently in conjunction with organizations and not empowerment, it was removed from the search term list.

The ability of the electronic database search to identify all relevant primary research was verified by hand searching the reference lists of eight key peer reviewed articles and nine key electronic journals that were flagged through the initial test search as well as the main search. The journals were chosen based on their relevance to the research question as well as their scholarly nature. The initial three identified journals were: Community Informatics , Gender and Development, and Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Subsequent journals were identified and selected for a hand-search once the initial search was completed. These were : Gender, Technology & Development , Computers in Human Behaviour , American Journal of Health Behaviour , American Journal of Public Health , and Women’s Health Issues . These journals were then reviewed for additional articles potentially not identified through the database search; this included entering the general search into journal databases.

Additional grey literature was identified by hand-searching the websites of the Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library Journals and Conference Proceedings, the UN Women, Status of Women Canada, the United Nations Development Program, the International Center for the Research of Women, the Girls Action Foundation, the Information and Communications Technology Council, the ITU, and the International Development Research Center for primary research reports, guidelines, situation reports, and referenced publications that were not already included.

Study selection: relevance screening and inclusion criteria

The focus of the study selection was locating published and unpublished academic articles, which may have any type of study design, including qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods. The initial pool of results included a total of 4481 citations. An initial set of inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed a-priori to screen abstracts and titles of citations which were refined during each review of the pool of articles. Research articles were initially considered relevant if they included women’s empowerment and/or information and communication technology concepts in the title or abstract of the publication. Synonyms for these concepts were created in consultation with the librarian to ensure a robust search strategy for maximum location and inclusion of studies. Given the evolving nature of ICTs and their role in interventions, the authors wanted the articles to reflect a recent knowledge base, therefore the timeframe of 2012–2016 was chosen, which was later expanded to December 31, 2017 as the review progressed. The results were also filtered to include English only content.

First screen: inclusion criteria

The inclusion criteria created for the first level of study selection were driven by the review topics, specifically, women, empowerment, and ICTs. According to the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) (2015), the inclusion criteria should be based on three themes, also known by the acronym of PCC: (a) participant description, (b) concept, which is likened to the phenomena of interest, and (c) context. The inclusion criteria used in the first level of selection were country of publication, date of publication (2012–2017), and the use of both of the following concepts in the title or abstract of the publication: women’s empowerment and/or information and communication technology. At this stage, the lead author looked for the presence of the key words in the title and/or abstract. The use of these keywords as inclusion criteria was designed to be intentionally broad to provide a sense of what publications linked the two concepts (i.e., women's empowerment and ICTs).

First screen: study selection

On first review, the initial pool of articles was subjected to a staged process to ensure studies were selected that were relevant to the research question and met the inclusion criteria. Articles were first excluded based on duplication within the initial search results. This exclusion was conducted using the search tools feature within the electronic database, but also within the reference management program Endnote™ and then manually by the lead author. The inclusion criteria were applied to the title and abstract of the publication. Any title or abstract that did not meet the inclusion criteria was removed from further review and consideration. All articles excluded by the criteria were sent to the research assistant who confirmed the exclusion. Any disagreements or contradictions between the primary author and the research assistant were thoroughly discussed, with both parties having to agree to the inclusion before the publication could be added back into the pool of articles to move on to the next stage. Additionally, if an article could not be excluded based solely on the title or the abstract, the full article was reviewed for relevance to the research question and inclusion criteria. These latter two points did not prove to be an issue as there were no disagreements.

Second screen

The remaining pool of articles was then reviewed a second time by applying a second level of inclusion criteria to the title as well as the abstract. It is common and encouraged as part of the scoping review process to generate increased cumulative familiarity with how concepts are presented within the evidence. This, in turn, informed the decisions that were made regarding the inclusion or exclusion criteria in the subsequent stage. Much of the articles after the first level of elimination included technology as a passive aspect of the study and not one that women actively participated in. It was important for the authors that the technological aspect of each study be an intervention that women could engage in towards building self-efficacy and capacity. This informs current gaps within the evidence that speak to how women are using technologies to support their empowerment. As such, this set of inclusion criteria focused on technology as an intervention and women as active participants in the study instead of just the word “women” found throughout the first set of criteria.

Final screen

For the final review of the full text articles, based on the content and findings in the scoping review process, an additional criterion was included. The authors wanted to explore how the social determinants of health informed and supported the concepts of women, empowerment, and ICTs. At this stage, it was noted which social determinants of health, if any, were present in each article. The list of social determinants based on the Government of Canada (2019) criterion was utilized as a reference for this portion of the process, such as employment and working conditions; income and social status; social supports and coping skills. The remaining 59 articles all had social determinants of health. A subsequent review resulted in 14 of the 59 articles being eliminated from consideration as they did not meet the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Rather than focus on a range of these determinants, the authors decided to include all 45 articles and to then review the implications of this finding in the analysis (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

PRISMA Flow for Screening Process

Re-run searches

Due to the extended time to conduct the review, the authors included re-run searches for each database up to January 1, 2018. A total of 573 articles were found in all 10 of the main electronic databases. Using the inclusion and exclusion criteria previously described all but six articles were eliminated through the first and second stages in the review process. The final total number of articles included in the analysis was 51.

Study characteristics, extraction, and charting

The final step in the Arksey and O’Malley’s [ 27 ] scoping review framework was to collate and summarize the results for presentation and discussion. Each selected article was summarized in a customized data characterization utility form to guide data extraction. The goal of this step was to determine and chart factors to be extracted from each article to help answer the research question [ 26 , 27 , 30 ]. The charting of data was an iterative and exploratory process in which the data charts were continuously updated to ensure completeness and accuracy [ 26 , 30 ]. Data extracted from the charts included year of publication, country of study, implications for policy and practice, types of ICT interventions, demographics, empowerment (definition, as a design consideration, and measures), and social determinants of health (presence and description within in the study). All data were then analyzed using thematic analysis and the main ideas refined over several iterations. The data were then mapped using tabular and visual presentations of the main conceptual categories followed by a narrative summary describing how the results related to the research question and objectives.

Demographics and study characteristics

The geographic range of the included evidence was global; however, 41.1% (21/51) described research conducted in the USA. Seven studies were conducted in India, three in Australia, three in Sweden, and two in Canada. One study was conducted in each of the following countries: Finland, Ghana, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and United Kingdom.

Collation and comparison of demographics was difficult due to a lack of consistency in reporting. However, all articles described the demographics of women who were the primary focus of the study. Seventy eight percent of the articles (40/51) reported on some or all of the descriptive study characteristics. The age of participants was frequently reported although there were inconsistent age groupings across the studies. Some articles only reported the mean age of participants, while others provided only an age range. The lowest mean age reported was 24 years while the highest was 59.6 years; the categories ranged from less than 16 years to 64 years and older. It is difficult to compare these age ranges as the categories varied in the included articles, and it was unclear as to whether age was simply a descriptive statistic designed to describe the sample or whether it was reflected upon consistently in terms of the overall implications to the study.

Missing from the studies were the perspectives and participation of women who could not access, afford, and/or purchase an ICT device as well as effectively and fully utilize it to support their empowerment. Exclusion criteria used in the individual 51 studies illustrate that women not already owning a mobile device, computer, or tablet were eliminated from participating in the research.

Empowerment definition

In the included studies, the concept of empowerment was used incongruously with terms like self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth, sometimes by the same author in the same study, which further limited our ability to achieve a uniform definition for the purposes of this research. Less than one quarter (12/51) of the studies used the term “empower(ment)” in their definition of the concept of interest. These studies defined empowerment as a process but with different foci: as individuals having choice or control over their decisions [ 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 ], as being multi-dimensional and influencing a variety of areas [ 34 , 37 , 39 , 40 ] or with a focus on building individuals’ capacities, including internal and external resources [ 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 ].

The remaining studies described empowerment in a more indirect way, never including the term “empower” or “disempower.” Instead, the term empowerment was described in synonymous terms, for instance, half (28/51) described the concept of empowerment as the process of enabling a sense of self-efficacy or self-worth in the ability to overcome barriers to resources, as well as the barriers to decision-making control [ 43 , 44 , 45 , 46 , 47 , 48 , 49 , 50 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 57 , 58 , 59 , 60 , 61 , 62 , 63 , 64 , 65 , 66 , 67 , 68 , 69 , 70 ]. One fifth (11/51) described empowerment as the process enabling a sense of self-efficacy or self-worth in the ability to overcome barriers to control over resources [ 71 , 72 , 73 , 74 , 75 , 76 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 80 , 81 ].

Measures of empowerment

All studies considered the concept of empowerment in their design; 80% (41/51) of the articles considered empowerment as a primary outcome of the study. No measures of empowerment were specifically cited in any of the articles, beyond the measures of the behaviour being studied. Several studies included various measures of self-efficacy (i.e., childbirth [ 74 ], physical activity [ 56 , 67 , 71 , 74 , 80 , 81 ], intimate partner violence [ 72 ], caregiving [ 75 ], barrier [ 55 , 56 ], health [ 78 ], and chronic disease management [ 77 ]). The authors of the articles did not compare the different types of self-efficacy scales for validity of empowerment. The diversity of the scales illustrates a focus on improving efficacy of individual behaviors rather than the holistic empowerment of women.

ICT interventions to support women’s capacity and tools

The articles described a range of supportive ICT interventions, though with inconsistent and overlapping classification. The specific types of interventions covered in the 51 articles included web-based devices (17), the internet (19), particular websites (3), blogs (1), text messaging (4), telemedicine (1), video (1), apps (5), social media (2), computers (6), email (1) and Fitbit™ (1). Our categorization of ICTs focused on how the specific interventions were utilized in the day to day lives of women and were obtained from a thematic analysis of the types of ICTs used by women in the studies. The themes included (1) Outreach; (2) Education; (3) Lifestyle (4) Health Challenges; (5) Prevention; and (6) Perception of Barriers.

Ten of the 51 articles reviewed described supportive ICT interventions as a means of outreach or connecting with clients in the community. Common themes in this section included supporting women where they are at in the community, in terms of their social position, to enhance positive health behaviours with technological assistance, as well as overall enhanced accessibility to ICTs. This was accomplished through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy using computers [ 46 ], and web-based decision aid for understanding fetal anomalies [ 47 ]. Educational text messages were sent to encourage breastfeeding [ 79 ], and general health promotion interventions were delivered as well [ 43 , 44 , 56 , 65 , 73 , 75 , 80 ].

Six articles described supportive ICT interventions that delivered various health information, through smartphones or other web-based devices. These included Facebook™ virtual learning systems [ 34 ], psychoeducation for breast cancer patients [ 35 ], as well as interactive voice response as a tool for improving access to healthcare in remote areas [ 59 ]. Other interventions included English language programs [ 70 ], antenatal perineal massage support groups [ 76 ], as well as support for enhancing doctor-patient relationships. [ 64 ].

Twelve articles described supportive ICT interventions that focused on behavioural outcomes related to general lifestyle areas, using web-based devices. Commonly, the interventions provided some form of external support for women to improve their overall way of being healthy. These included improving nutrition knowledge and behaviours [ 67 , 69 ], promoting healthy food planning, shopping, and eating behaviours [ 54 ], interventions for weight loss behaviours, [ 45 ] and engagement with physical activity coaching [ 55 , 71 , 74 ]. Many of the interventions focused on social networks [ 9 , 48 ], for example, peer support for building social capital [ 52 ], and promoting social behaviours through an iPad book club [ 81 ].

Health challenges

Eleven articles described ICT interventions that focused on using web-based devices to address specific health challenges. The health challenges largely focusing on ways to enhance maintenance of women’s health, for example, self-paced education programs for those who experience intimate partner, as well as dating violence [ 33 , 41 , 72 ], and educational training to enhance understanding and management of chronic illness [ 77 ]. The interventions addressing health challenges were concentrated on those that affect women only, for example educational training for patients with breast cancer [ 38 , 61 ], health modules for those with breast cancer [ 78 ] and stress incontinence [ 63 ] and advanced care planning for women with ovarian cancer [ 49 ].

A few articles (3/51) described ICT interventions that focused on preventing specific health challenges using web-based devices. One intervention focused on the prevention of sexual and reproductive illness using education information [ 57 ]. Another encouraged vaccination behaviors and immunization with educational information [ 58 ] as well as the prevention of pre-eclampsia in rural developing countries using diagnostic tools [ 51 ]. One study focused on utilizing mobile phones to manage money transfers to support transport of women with fistula to urban hospitals [ 60 ] and another examined electronic health records to improve breast cancer screening [ 53 ].

Perceptions of barriers

Nine articles described ICT interventions that focused on the perception of barriers to ICTs that assist women in advancing their understanding and use of ICTs. These studies focused on the perceived barriers and understanding of the role of mobile phones, [ 42 , 66 ] the awareness of gender-based barriers in telemedicine [ 68 ], the development of women through mobile phones [ 32 , 40 ], as well as the connection with women in the community apps [ 50 ].

Concept of empowerment

Empowerment is a multi-dimensional and contextual concept that is internal by nature, varies in meaning, and reflects how women self-ascribe it to themselves. From the outset of the review, search terms had to include words beyond simply “empower[ment]” as much of the initial searching revealed synonyms including self-efficacy, self-worth, self-concept, and/or capacity. This inconsistency in the use of the term empowerment yields a lack of consensus on how empowerment is understood which impacts how research studies and interventions are structured and delivered to ensure maximum effectiveness and generalizability. While none of the studies included in the review indicated the broader negative outcomes related to the use of ICT, the literature supports a flip side to using technology to empower women. For example, technological advances are disproportionately accompanied by female-directed cyber abuse [ 82 , 83 ].

Evidence that women of poor socio-economic status are being left out of research studies and programs that aim to support women’s empowerment, highlights that targeted access and funding for at risk populations (such as sub-populations of women) are essential considerations in policy and program development across individual, community, and global contexts. This also reflects biases in terms of the population sub-groups in research studies that aim to advance empowerment. Opportunities exist for further evaluation of how empowerment is being measured and used in conjunction with ICTs, as well as which frameworks are being used to guide research in this area. The lack of specific measures of empowerment reflects a barrier, not only regarding how strategies for empowerment are understood and implemented, but how researchers know whether empowerment has been achieved. The finding underscores a need for a standardized tool for measuring the level of women’s empowerment.

ICTs to improve empowerment

Empowerment through ICTs has the potential to cross multiple sectors, both private and public. The complexity of empowerment and ICTs, as they relate to the root issues of inequities, suggests the need for collaborative, multi-sectoral involvement. These partnerships consider the contextual factors that act as facilitators and barriers for women in all types of communities. Interagency partnerships are uniquely suited to develop interventions aimed at enabling women to make better use of ICTs. These interventions should include information on access to education, facilities for education regarding entrepreneurship, employment opportunities, and health and other government health resources. Governments partnering with private telecommunication agencies through subsidization could provide discounted or refurbished devices for women who are deemed disadvantaged. Funding may also benefit those who experience difficulty in obtaining mobile devices as well as in accessing interventions aimed at enhancing the use of ICT. For example, funding is needed to support the cost of accessing services, low-cost devices, or the provision of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards. Alternatively, governments should support and encourage private mobile operators through tax exemptions and other benefits to facilitate better mobile services and infrastructure in rural, remote, and urban areas. Providing accessible computer sites within communities or in schools is another way to bridge the gap in access to and use of ICT. These strategies not only help in improving the overall status of girls and women but also influence overall empowerment and development of the community.

Though ICT is not the only factor that can support women’s empowerment through capacity building, women who do not have access to or who cannot afford ICTs, are potentially disempowered due to a lack of voice and participation within the information sphere. Exclusion of such women from research limits the measurement of the true impact of ICTs on empowerment and generalizability of findings. Continued research regarding empowerment involving more advantaged sub-groups of women does not address the inherent issues of oppression of women within society and further disempowers those under-represented groups. Local policies (such as affordable internet as a basic need; basic digital literacy education embedded in local curricula) have the greatest potential of improving the uptake of ICTs, as this process occurs initially at the individual level.

Individual, community, and global knowledge

Local and national governments need to invest in information gathering tools that inquire how and why women are using technology to support their lives and families. Equally important is the inquiry of women’s perceptions regarding how they prefer to use ICTs to improve their lives or the barriers they experience in the process. A global survey undertaken by the UN Statistics Division in 2011 indicated that only 30 percent of countries regularly produce sex-disaggregated statistics (such as male:female access to ICT; digital literacy by gender) and existing data collection approaches do not incorporate qualitative components that highlight the voices of women [ 84 ].

Future data should be translated into gender sensitive policies that support equal access and use of ICTs. The development and implementation of such policies should involve representation of women from all socio-economic backgrounds and ages to ensure maximum impact. Examples include policies that allow women to effectively access and participate in ICTs within society, the delivery of ICTs at a reasonable cost for all, as well as policies that regulate the cost and provision of services linked to ICTs such as availability of cell phone, easily accessible WiFi sites, and cost-effective internet plans.

Limitations

While scoping reviews examine the breadth of evidence available on a topic, they do not factor in the depth or quality of that evidence [ 25 , 26 , 27 , 30 ]. Some authors have argued that scoping reviews should include an assessment of quality; however, Armstrong et al. [ 25 ] contend that this decision should depend on the resources available for the review as well as the purpose of the scoping review itself. The quantity of data that is generated in a scoping review can be significant and so it is important to find a balance between providing an overview of all types of evidence found and providing detailed data and assessment of a smaller number of studies [ 25 ]. Scoping studies also lack a thorough evaluation of the quality of results, instead producing a narrative account of all available evidence [ 26 , 27 ]. This approach serves to ensure that all resulting evidence is included in the review and does not limit the end number of articles, as in a systematic review.

Conclusions

The diversity of technological interventions utilized to support empowerment is infinite and there is no limit to how ICTs can be implemented in daily lives. This study is novel and essential as it comprehensively describes efforts to use ICTs to empower women, and the imperative for collaborations between researchers, program implementers and policy makers to address the persistent gender disparities in the access to and use of technologies. This research provides a foundation for future research on the concept of empowerment with ICTs in critical areas of outreach, education, lifestyle, health challenge, prevention, and perception of barriers. Outreach was linked to positive health behaviours such as health promotion and decision-making applications. Education interventions varied from learning systems to health relationships for knowledge sharing. Lifestyle ICT interventions were related to external supports, often peer based, for improving healthful choices such as coaching and planning tools. Health challenges and prevention were relevant to specific challenges (e.g., intimate partner violence; chronic diseases) and health literacy issues (e.g., vaccine awareness; screening programs), respectively. The final theme of perceptions of barriers reflected experiences by participants respecting uptake, utilization, and ubiquity of ICTs. Each of these areas is well situated for future intervention research and each area brings focal points and imperatives to this emerging research agenda.

Availability of data and materials

The databases used in the study were all open access and included Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete. The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

Sustainable Development Goals

Information and communication technology

Information and communications technologies

World Health Organization

United Nations

International Telecommunication Union

Global Positioning System

Subscriber Identity Module

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Article Contents

Introduction, youth and advocacy, youth and technology, technology options, tactics for using technology in advocacy, youth advocacy and technology case studies, limitations of technology in advocacy.

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Empowering Youth: Use of Technology in Advocacy to Affect Social Change

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Rosemary Thackeray, MaryAnne Hunter, Empowering Youth: Use of Technology in Advocacy to Affect Social Change, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication , Volume 15, Issue 4, 1 July 2010, Pages 575–591, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01503.x

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The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework for integrating technology with youth advocacy efforts to affect social change and influence social determinants of health, particularly in 1) recruiting people to join the cause, 2) organizing collective action, 3) raising awareness and shaping attitudes, 4) raising funds to support the cause, and 5) communicating with decision makers. Making strategic decisions to combine technology and youth advocacy will give youth a voice, arm them with advocacy skills, and increase their self-efficacy. These youth may become adults who are involved in larger policy-based decisions that will address the social determinants of health that affect the health status of people in their communities and throughout the world.

Social determinants, including socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental conditions, are the root cause of poor health and associated inequities between and among various racial, ethnic, or other demographic groups, and countries ( Marmot, 2005 ). To effectively improve health status, we must modify or change social determinants. To do so will require a transformation of policies, rules, regulations, and legislation among various sectors, including, but not limited to public health, business, industry, and medicine. The change needed to affect social determinants is not the responsibility alone of policy makers and institutions. A shift in people's beliefs and how they think about issues, and subsequent individual advocacy efforts can support social change (Mankoff, Matthews, Fussell, & Johnson, 2007 ).

Advocacy is the use of resources and information to bring about systematic change. Health advocacy is “the processes by which the actions of individuals or groups attempt to bring about social and/or organizational change on behalf of a particular health goal, program, interest, or population” (2000 Joint Committee on Health Education and Promotion Terminology, 2002, p. 3 ). “Advocacy has the potential to shape or change policy in a way that can impact the health of thousands, if not millions, of people” ( Galer-Unti, Tappe & Lachenmayr, 2004, p. 287 ).

History shows that public health advocacy works. The greatest advancements in improving public health in the 20 th century are the result of change in policy or regulation ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999a ). For example, water fluoridation has resulted in significant reductions in tooth decay and dental caries among both children and adults ( CDC, 1999b ). For a community to fluoridate water requires change to laws and policy ( Roemer, 1965 ). Reductions in deaths due to motor-vehicle crashes are attributable to new regulations and standards for motor vehicles and road design as well as enactment and enforcement of laws that require drivers and passengers to wear safety belts ( CDC, 1999c ). The recognition that tobacco use is detrimental to a person's health was the basis for development and implementation several public health interventions that would limit a person's exposure to tobacco. Success in reducing access to tobacco products and limiting exposure to environmental tobacco smoke has required substantial advocacy efforts ( Lantz et al, 2000 ; Schroeder, 2004 ). Some of the most well-known public health youth advocacy examples include youth involvement in tobacco prevention and control ( Martin, Ribisl, Jefferson, & Houston, 2001 ) and substance use prevention ( Tencati, Kole, Feighery, Winkleby, & Altman, 2002 ).

Advocacy, at its most basic level, is communication. It is one person or a group of people sending messages for the purpose of persuading or influencing others. While various tools aid with the communication process, technological advances, including software and associated devices, are expanding advocates' communication options. With these options comes the potential to make advocacy efforts more effective and efficient. The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework for integrating technology with youth advocacy efforts to affect social change. Table 1 provides a brief glossary of technology-related terms that will be used throughout the paper.

Glossary of terms

Type of TechnologyDescription
An online community. People create personal profiles; organizations create pages. Allows users to maintain contact with friends, strengthen existing social networks, find new friends and expand networks.
ApplicationFeatures on social networking sites that allow people to customize their page and interact with each other. Examples are causes, photos, groups, events, gifts, videos, notes.
Wall or CommentsThe space on a SNS page where user's friends can post comments.
GroupA collection of people who share interest in a common issue. Groups share a common SNS page and share and discuss ideas on message or discussion boards. Groups can be private (membership must be approved by an administrator or moderator) or they can be public (anyone can join).
A communication device that uses wireless technology to send information or communication across distances to other devices or people. Cell phones are the most common. Web-enabled mobile devices allow access to the Internet.
Multimedia Services (MMS)Audio, video, or picture images sent from one mobile phone to another.
Short Message Service (SMS)Text message (less than 160 characters) sent from one mobile phone to another
RSS Real Simple SyndicationA RSS is a web feed or reader that automatically notifies subscribers of new content available on websites or pages. It is like one-stop shopping for updates, rather than having to check individual sites or pages.
TwitterA social networking service that allows people to share brief (140 characters or less) updates on their location, activities, thoughts, and so forth, with . Messages can be sent or received using a mobile phone or the Internet. It is also referred to as microblogging.
BlogA type of webpage where a person makes (or posts) regular entries (e.g., text, photos, videos) similar to an online journal. Individual blogs can include personal information, thoughts and feelings, and read like a journal. Organization or topic-based blogs (e.g. breastfeeding or sexually transmitted infections) tend to be content specific. Readers can comment on posts.
PodcastAn audio or video file that is distributed over the Internet. The file can be listened to on a computer of mp3 player.
Type of TechnologyDescription
An online community. People create personal profiles; organizations create pages. Allows users to maintain contact with friends, strengthen existing social networks, find new friends and expand networks.
ApplicationFeatures on social networking sites that allow people to customize their page and interact with each other. Examples are causes, photos, groups, events, gifts, videos, notes.
Wall or CommentsThe space on a SNS page where user's friends can post comments.
GroupA collection of people who share interest in a common issue. Groups share a common SNS page and share and discuss ideas on message or discussion boards. Groups can be private (membership must be approved by an administrator or moderator) or they can be public (anyone can join).
A communication device that uses wireless technology to send information or communication across distances to other devices or people. Cell phones are the most common. Web-enabled mobile devices allow access to the Internet.
Multimedia Services (MMS)Audio, video, or picture images sent from one mobile phone to another.
Short Message Service (SMS)Text message (less than 160 characters) sent from one mobile phone to another
RSS Real Simple SyndicationA RSS is a web feed or reader that automatically notifies subscribers of new content available on websites or pages. It is like one-stop shopping for updates, rather than having to check individual sites or pages.
TwitterA social networking service that allows people to share brief (140 characters or less) updates on their location, activities, thoughts, and so forth, with . Messages can be sent or received using a mobile phone or the Internet. It is also referred to as microblogging.
BlogA type of webpage where a person makes (or posts) regular entries (e.g., text, photos, videos) similar to an online journal. Individual blogs can include personal information, thoughts and feelings, and read like a journal. Organization or topic-based blogs (e.g. breastfeeding or sexually transmitted infections) tend to be content specific. Readers can comment on posts.
PodcastAn audio or video file that is distributed over the Internet. The file can be listened to on a computer of mp3 player.

Youth have previously been handed a second-class ticket in democracy–they are not allowed to vote, yet pertinent policies and legislation are made that directly affect their health. For example, the alcohol industry is allowed to exploit adolescents by directing a disproportionate amount of its advertising toward this population ( Jernigan, Ostroff, & Ross, 2005 ). The irony is that the alcohol industry is targeting a population that cannot legally drink. If youth were permitted a voice, instead of being silenced by their age, they could more effectively influence regulation of the alcohol industry. As it is, the industry holds on to the power and exposes underage teenagers to excessive amounts of advertising.

Delli Carpini (2000) suggests that young adults (ages 18–29) are, for the most part, disengaged in civic affairs. The author cites a lack of knowledge of political topics and processes, registering to vote, and participation in actions beyond voting, and so forth, to support this premise. The author notes that this lack of interest and involvement in civic affairs is not because young people are disinterested, but rather “because they are alienated from the institutions and processes of civic life and lack the motivation, opportunity, and ability to overcome this alienation” (p. 345).

However, engagement in civic affairs and social change need not be limited to young adults of legal voting age. It is possible for all youth to have a voice and be civically active. Adolescents ages 12–17 are a largely untapped resource within communities; they are part of the community and can become part of the solution to its problems. For example, Lifting New Voices, a demonstration project aimed at engaging 15- to 21-year-olds in community organizing and advocacy, has been very successful ( Checkoway et al., 2003 ). Community projects have resulted in enhanced school environments, including improved quality of food, availability of books, running water in restrooms, and a change in a school suspension policy (Checkoway).

Providing opportunities for youth to successfully participate in social change, giving them a voice, and be involved in civic affairs may develop a generation of youth who carry these skills into adulthood. Armed with advocacy skills and empowered by previous successful experience, these youth may become adults who are involved in larger policy-based decisions that will address the social determinants of health. Furthermore, being involved in advocacy is likely to influence youths' health-related attitudes, beliefs, options, and behaviors ( Winkleby, Feighery, Dunn, Kole, Ahn, & Killen, 2004 ).

In order to give youth a voice and encourage young people to become involved in civic affairs and social change it must be easy and convenient to participate. Common reasons people give for not being involved in advocacy include perceptions that they do not have the time or the skills and do not know where to begin ( Galer-Unti, Tappe & Lachenmayr, 2004 ). Carver, Reinert, Range, & Campbell (2003) reported that some youth may lack confidence in their ability to participate in activism.

Individual participation in social change movements tends to be “stronger” when the activities are “easily integrated into daily life” ( Mankoff, Matthews, Fussel & Johnson, 2007, pg. 4 ). Furthermore, an individual's social networks influence his or her involvement in social movements. Research shows that networks serve three purposes, “structurally connecting prospective participants to an opportunity to participate, socializing them to a protest issue, and shaping their decision to become involved” ( Passy & Giugni, 2001, p. 123 ). In addition, people are more likely to be involved in a cause when they are recruited by close friends and other activists (Passy & Giugni). Being part of a network of family and friends who are already involved in the cause is also a predictor of personal involvement (Passy & Giugni).

The adoption and spread of cell phones in the early 1990s has been attributed to use by youth ( Castells, 2006 ). Teens and young adults throughout Europe, the United States, Asia (Castells), and Brazil ( Nielsen, 2009 ) have the highest rates of cell phone usage as compared to all other age groups. Near the end of 2007, the Worldwatch Institute estimated that there were 70 cell phone subscribers for every 100 residents of the United States ( Chafe, 2007 ). More than 80% of all households in America have at least one cell phone; among households with married couples, 57% of children ages 7 to 17 have access to their own cell phone ( Kennedy, Smith, Wells, & Wellman, 2008 ). Among younger populations, sending text messages on cell phones appears to be one of the most prevalent forms of communication. Sixty percent of 18- to 29-year-olds indicate that they send or receive texts every day ( Horrigan, 2008 ). While this is not the adolescent cohort, it is likely that adolescent text messages rates are higher. Data indicate that the proportion of people who text daily nearly doubles with each decrease in an age group ( Horrigan, 2008 ).

As with cell phones, social networking sites (SNS) are quickly becoming a pervasive part of American culture ( boyd & Ellison, 2007 ). Preliminary data from early 2009 indicate that the use of social networking sites is expanding more significantly than any other online modality, including e-mail ( Nielsen, 2009 ). Over half of all on-line American adolescents, ages 12 to 17, use some form of SNS ( Lenhart & Madden, 2007 ). In a study of 18- to 19-year-old college students, 88% reported using a social networking site ( Hargatti, 2008 ). Ninety-one percent of teenagers who use SNS use them to stay in touch with friends who they frequently see. Almost half of teens reported using SNS to make new friends, while 72% use SNS to make plans with their current friends ( Lenhart & Madden, 2007 ). These numbers reflect the idea that while teens use SNS to find new friends, teens primarily use SNS to strengthen existing networks. These strengthened networks can easily translate into strong advocacy networks when used in an appropriate way.

Raynes-Goldie and Walker (2008) note that for social change to occur advocates need the following: information, people, and tools. Technology, including cell phones and SNS, can provide advocates access to these resources. Use of technology appears to cross ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries ( Horrigan, 2008 ; Lenhart, 2009 ). Therefore, it appears that technologies are a viable means to engage youth in civic affairs and advocacy to address social determinants which may lead to a reduction in health disparities. Technology makes it easy for people to participate. It also lowers the nonfinancial costs, improves the quality of participation, and increases the types of advocacy activities in which they engage ( Delli Carpini, 2000 ). These technologies also engage the individual's social networks.

Mobile technologies include communication devices that use wireless technology to send information or communication across distances to other devices. Cell phones are, perhaps, the most common mobile devices. Cell phones can transmit voice data, text data, also known as short message services (SMS) or text messaging (i.e., up to 160 characters sent from one mobile telephone to another) and audio or video data, known as multimedia services (MMS), (i.e., audio, pictures and video images). Cell phones are increasingly being used to send text messages, take photographs, play games, record and watch videos, and play music ( Horrigan, 2008 ).

In addition, using wireless signals, Internet access is available through web-enabled cell phones. This connectivity allows for sending e-mails, browsing websites, accessing SNS, and receiving updates from websites and blogs through RSS feeds. In 2008, 40 million Americans used their phones to access the web ( Critical Mass, 2008 ) and the number of people who accessed their SNS using a mobile device increased 260% ( Nielsen, 2009 ). These mobile phone capabilities, from the most basic voice call to a technologically complex video, represent the future of communication.

People have been communicating through online discussion groups, message boards, and listservs since the early 1980s ( Grier & Campbell, 2000 ). These programs were associated primarily with companies or social organizations (Grier & Campbell). The development of SNS has allowed a shift in focus from organization-based communication to individual interpersonal communication, among all age groups, but particularly younger people. SNS were specifically designed to help people make and keep connections with others who have similar interests (boyd & Ellison, 2008).

There are several different SNS. Facebook claims 200 million active users and estimate that their users spend 3.5 billion minutes on Facebook daily ( Facebook, 2009 ). MySpace, another SNS, purports to have 184 million users, and Friendster, 50 million users ( 5 facts about social networking sites, 2008 ). In addition to Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster there are at least 130 other SNS ( List of social networking websites , 2009 ). These range from SNS with broad target audiences to narrow target populations, such as an SNS for people interested in hospitality at home and abroad ( The Hospitality Club, 2006 ).

A SNS is “an online location where a user can create a profile and build a personal network that connects him or her to other users” ( Lenhart & Madden, 2007, p. 1 ).To join a SNS a person creates a personal account profile which becomes the person's page. On personal profiles, people share factual information about themselves, including preferences and the causes or groups they support. In each SNS people can invite other users to become their friend , or request that they be added as a friend. Some SNS, such as Facebook, will only allow individuals to create profiles, but organizations can create pages. The functionality for individuals' profiles and organization pages is essentially the same. The primary difference is that individuals have friends and organization pages have fans.

SNS have multiple ways for friends to communicate with each other. These options include walls, comments, groups, forums, and private messages. For instance, MySpace allows for people to write on others' profile pages in the comments section. Similarly, on Facebook a person can write on someone else's wall –a space connected to the person's personal profile. Any friend on Facebook can read any comment or wall post. Users can send each other private messages, which are just like e-mails.

All SNS allow people to join groups and participate in forums discussing various topics. SNS groups can be either public, meaning anyone can join, or private, meaning an invitation is required. Once a group member, the person is immediately connected to a network of people who feel passionately about the issue, who are easily accessible, and easily mobilized. Group members share recent news, give encouragement, share pictures and videos, and express opinions.

SNS also allow for creating events and sending personal or group invitations to an event. The event invitation indicates the event description, date, time, location, and contact person. With event invitations, people can respond with a RSVP, letting the organizer know in advance how many people will attend.

Advocates using these technologies can share information at a faster pace, recruit more people and use a variety of tools to implement the necessary action for social change. Specifically, youth advocates can use cell phones and SNS for 1) recruiting people to join the cause, 2) organizing collective action, 3) raising awareness and shaping attitudes, 4) raising funds to support the cause, and 5) communicating with decision makers. While both cell phones and SNS can be used for these advocacy-related purposes there are advantages and disadvantages to using one over the other in various situations. Table 2 outlines the comparative qualities of each.

Comparative qualities of social networking sites and cell phones in advocacy

TechnologyAdvantages for AdvocacyDisadvantages For Advocacy
Social Networking SitesMessage sent on SNS can be stored indefinitelyNot all advocates may be able to attend in-person events because of geographic distances inherent in an online community
Easy to invite friends and fans to join the advocacy causeOlder decision makers may not give as much credence to this form of communication
Can organize events and post specifics about location, time, and purposeRequires Internet access
Reach a large number of people quickly
One central location for advocates to find information about the advocacy cause
Can post videos or photos
Unlimited space to post information
Can update posts from a web-enabled cell phone or mobile device
Can check posts from a web-enabled cell phone or mobile device
Cell PhonesReach a large number of people quickly in real-timeA text or video message may be quickly erased
Text or video message will be received immediatelyDecision makers may not be able to answer the phone when in a meeting
Can use phones to take photosHave to limit messages to 160 characters
Decision maker can read a text message while in a meetingAdvocates cell phone calling plans may be limited by the number of text messages they can send
Can be used to send quick, brief reminders of eventsNot all advocates may own a cell phone.
No need for Internet accessCell phones numbers may be changed and contact with advocates is lost.
Can talk to the other individual in-person.
Can forward text or video messages to friends and other advocates
TechnologyAdvantages for AdvocacyDisadvantages For Advocacy
Social Networking SitesMessage sent on SNS can be stored indefinitelyNot all advocates may be able to attend in-person events because of geographic distances inherent in an online community
Easy to invite friends and fans to join the advocacy causeOlder decision makers may not give as much credence to this form of communication
Can organize events and post specifics about location, time, and purposeRequires Internet access
Reach a large number of people quickly
One central location for advocates to find information about the advocacy cause
Can post videos or photos
Unlimited space to post information
Can update posts from a web-enabled cell phone or mobile device
Can check posts from a web-enabled cell phone or mobile device
Cell PhonesReach a large number of people quickly in real-timeA text or video message may be quickly erased
Text or video message will be received immediatelyDecision makers may not be able to answer the phone when in a meeting
Can use phones to take photosHave to limit messages to 160 characters
Decision maker can read a text message while in a meetingAdvocates cell phone calling plans may be limited by the number of text messages they can send
Can be used to send quick, brief reminders of eventsNot all advocates may own a cell phone.
No need for Internet accessCell phones numbers may be changed and contact with advocates is lost.
Can talk to the other individual in-person.
Can forward text or video messages to friends and other advocates

Recruit people to join an advocacy cause. Although individuals can participate in personal advocacy efforts, collective action of a larger group is generally more efficacious. For advocates, either individuals or organizations, who are interested in using technology, one of the first steps is to create a network of individuals. Advocates who use cell phones will want to gather cell phone numbers and program these numbers as a group in the phone. On SNS an organization might create a page and invite people to become fans.

Once networks are established, there are several ways to recruit people to join a cause. Using cell phones, most simply, a call or text message inviting someone to become a member is all that may be needed. On SNS an advocate can send a message to friends or fans with whom they are linked. Another way to recruit people to join a cause on a SNS is to create a group. These groups are a natural means of recruiting advocates. An adolescent can create a group supporting a certain policy issue and proceed to show a decision maker how many people support the cause. Focus groups conducted with state senators and representatives revealed that hearing from as few as three or five their constituents influences their position on an issue ( March of Dimes, 2001 ).

Another way to recruit people on a SNS is through applications . Applications are features on SNS that allow people to interact with one another. Applications may include things such as virtual gifts, games, and the most popular, causes . Sending a friend a cause application demonstrates one's support of the cause. Causes can also be designed to raise funds. For example on Facebook the application (Lil) Green Patch raises awareness about global warming and encourages people to take action to make a difference ( http://apps.facebook.com/greentrees/send-plants.php ). Through this application people can plant fruit with their friends while sponsors contribute money each time the application is used. Individuals using the application can also make donations to other global warming-based causes.

Organize collective action. Using technology to organize collective action has been proven successful. The Howard Dean 2004 primary U.S. presidential campaign is frequently cited as an example of the power of technology to mobilize groups for political action ( Hindman, 2005 ). During the 2008 presidential election, all the major candidates successfully leveraged cell phones and SNS to recruit and organize political supporters ( Sanson, 2008 ). Research shows that nearly two-thirds (66%) of Internet users under the age of 30 have a SNS, and during the 2008 election, half of them used that site to “to get or share information about the candidates and the campaign” ( Smith & Rainie, 2008, p.ii ). In addition, international political action campaigns have used text messages to effectively mobilize people that affected the outcome of an election (Hong, 2005).

Individuals can organize collective action on a SNS by sending an alert or message to all group members. A post can also be made to a SNS wall. This post is received by all friends or fan members.

Using cell phones, text message can be sent to all group members. For example, the Energy Action Coalition, which works with thousands of youth on the topic of clean energy and alternative energy sources, hosted PowerShift 09, an effort aimed at influencing climate legislation. During their visits to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC the youth used text messaging and cell phone to keep their counterparts up to date on events ( Teplitzky, 2009 ). When the legislative committees were on break, a message was sent to all group members telling them that now was the time to call their representative ( PowerShift09, 2009 )

In addition, organizing advocates can be accomplished by a person creating an event invitation on his or her SNS and sending it to all of his or her friends and fans. An event could be a meeting, a rally, a press conference, and so forth. As mentioned previously, the organizer can request RSVPs for the event. If the turnout will be high, the media should be invited to the event, as part of a media advocacy strategy. For instance, youth could text their friends to attend the local board of health meeting that night to show support for the proposed local ordinance of no smoking in the public park.

Raise awareness and shape attitudes. As noted earlier, successful advocacy results from people changing how they think about an issue. SNS and cell phones make it easy for people to engage in conversation to debate and discuss the issues. Through text messages, posts to SNS discussion boards, wall posts, or e-mails to groups people begin to become more informed about the issues, think about them in a new way, and how it affects their environment. For example, youth may dialog on a SNS discussion board about the lack of neighborhood street lighting and its impact on crime rates.

In advocacy efforts, a tactic referred to as media advocacy has been used for increasing public awareness about a topic and garnering mass media coverage. Technology allows for additional grassroots efforts by advocacy group members through citizen journalism. Citizen journalism encompasses reporting of news, investigative blogging, hyperlocal journalism, and digital storytelling by the lay public ( Rheingold, 2008 ). Engaging in citizen journalism on a SNS a person can post copies of communication sent to mass media, including letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, or news releases. A person can also upload related photos, videos or podcasts. For example, youth could write a letter to the editor about the lack of fruits and vegetables at the neighborhood grocery store and then post it on his SNS where his friends and others can read it. The potential impact of exposure to events from lay public sharing their experiences on the Internet was illustrated during the 2006 election cycle when a volunteer for Jim Webb's senate campaign in the U.S. state of Virginia followed his opponent, incumbent Senator George Allen, around filming his stump speeches. The senator referred to the volunteer, who was of Indian descent, as “Macaca”. The volunteer posted this video on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI ). The incident resulted in an apology from the senator ( Craig & Shear, 2006 ).

A related, and particularly powerful, advocacy strategy to raise awareness is photovoice. Photovoice is the process of using photographs to depict a community and using that as a catalyst for change. The goals of photovoice are “(1) to enable people to record and reflect their community's strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important community issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and (3) to reach policy makers” ( Wang & Burris, 1997, p. 370 ). A powerful of example of photovoice in the recent past happened during Hurricane Katrina. A blog was created for people to upload photos and videos of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath and write their feelings about what occurred ( http://hurricane-katrina-pictures.com/ ). This same type of arena could be created on a SNS.

Typically, a photovoice campaign supplies a target population with cameras. The individuals return to their home environment to take pictures and write their impressions or feelings about their situation. Supplying each person with a camera creates a financial barrier to photovoice; however, most cell phones can be used as cameras. Youth participate in photovoice by uploading pictures of their environment and posting on their SNS how that environment impacts their lives.

One of the key improvements that mobile technology makes to photovoice is the ability to upload pictures in real time. If the phone has Internet access, the picture could be immediately uploaded to a blog or SNS and the photographer could record his or her impressions instantaneously. It would be more effective for a decision maker to receive a video of cars speeding down the neighborhood street rather than hearing about it anecdotally a few weeks later.

Raise funds to support a cause. Advocacy groups require budgets to support their efforts. As mentioned previously, SNS cause applications can raise funds. In addition, both cell phones and SNS could be part of a larger marketing campaign to raise money. The ability to organize groups, communicate with group members, invite people to events are all available through a SNS. Cell phones could be used for a text message campaign to solicit donations. For instance, people would be asked to send a text message to 55555 with the word help . Doing so would contribute a predetermined amount to the advocacy cause. The American Red Cross successfully used this strategy to raise funds to help victims of Hurricane Katrina ( Nobles, 2006 ). While youth may be less able to donate financially, a campaign could be designed as a collaborative effort between parents and youth.

Communicate with decision makers. Success of advocacy efforts requires persuasive communication with decision makers. Traditional advocacy efforts include calling or writing a policy or decision maker to ask for support or to educate him or her about an issue. With technology, advocates are not limited by time and space or method. A phone call can be made or text message sent from anywhere at any time; a message can be posted on the decision maker's SNS page. These features make it easy for people to be involved in a simple advocacy action. For instance, a youth could post a message on the mayor's SNS page asking for her vote at the town council meeting where a skate park is being discussed.

Youth can use technology in a variety of ways to become more involved in advocacy. The following are three case studies. The first one is hypothetical, illustrating an ideal way to combine advocacy and technology. The second and third case studies are actual examples of youth advocacy.

Case Study 1. Paola's younger brother was recently hit and killed by a car while playing near his house in San Diego, California. The apartment complex where he lived had no sidewalk and nearly no grass. The road running in front of their apartment is busy and the speed limit is 55 MPH. As part of Paola's grieving process, she called her friend Laura. As Laura heard about Paola's living situation, she was incensed. After their conversation, Laura posted an entry on her blog about it, which appeared on her MySpace profile. Several of Laura's friends made comments on her page regarding the situation, so Laura started a group, “Citizens for Safe Streets,” within MySpace. One of the group members heard a podcast regarding the need for safer, slower streets near residential areas, which he subsequently posted on the group page. After listening to this podcast several group members demanded that the group take some kind of action. One member took the initiative to post Frogger, a game that can be downloaded to a personal cell phone; however, the cost of downloading the game was a call to a city council member to talk to them about the problem in Paola's neighborhood. Once they could enter in a city council member's name and details from the conversation, they could download the game (which incidentally is about crossing a street safely).

After the city council had received over 50 calls, Laura thought it would be a good time to organize a rally. She uploaded a video news clip from Paola's brother's funeral and asked each group member to download it to their cell phones and then forward it with a message about attending the rally at the city council office as a text to three contacts. Laura also contacted the local news stations and asked them to attend. Over 400 people attended the rally. While there, they signed a petition asking the city council to allocate funds to lower the speed limit, put in speed bumps, and build a sidewalk in Paola's neighborhood. One member of the rally sent constant Twitters (i.e., miniblogging in real time) to a group blog from his cell phone to inform interested parties about what was going on at the rally. Many people commented on the blog in support of the rally. At a designated time the leaders were able to meet with the city council members. When the leaders showed the council members the petition, the support on the blog, and the reporters outside, the council members agreed to reduce the speed limit, put in speed bumps, and build a sidewalk in Paola's neighborhood.

Case Study 2. High school students Jake Beech and Graham Horn from Bexley High School in Ohio found a way to make a political difference. They felt strongly about supporting then Senator Obama in his campaign for the presidency. They created a grassroots movement dubbed “every one counts.” The principle idea was to motivate everyone, whether they could vote or not, to make a $1 contribution to Barack Obama's campaign. They asked for people to send a picture of themselves with their one dollar contribution to be posted on their website www.everyonecounts.org .

To spread the word about this campaign, Jake and Graham created a Facebook group under the political organizations heading ( http://hs.facebook.com/group.php?gid=22511340530 ). The page states their purpose as follows: “Ohio high school students are finding a way to be part of the change we have been waiting for. Although not all of us can vote, we have a voice, and we are uniting to use our collective voice in support of Barack Obama.” They knew that they could advocate for a cause they believed in using a medium with which they were familiar. Their group has 199 members. On the wall of their group several of their peers affirmed what a good idea this was and how they were planning to contribute.

Case Study 3. The 2009 Utah Legislative session included a bill (House Bill 444) which aimed to eliminate $4 million from the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program funds. After hearing about the issues at hand, a young adult named Peter Moosman started Project 1200 in February 2009 (P. Moosman, personal communication, April 17, 2009). About three-fourths of the group members are high school students, with the rest being junior high students and adults. The name of the group came from the fact that 1200 people die every day due to tobacco.

Peter started Project 1200 as a way to get youth involved in the advocacy process and have a group they could be affiliated with as they went to Capitol Hill to lobby. Project 1200 utilized technology in various ways. Project 1200 used several features of Facebook to assist their advocacy work. Peter created a Facebook group. On his own Facebook page he put Project 1200 as his status . He invited his friends to join the group, encouraged them to tell their friends; “the word of mouth spread it.” The Facebook page explained the cause in more detail. They used an events page and included the meeting time, location, and to contact Peter if they have any questions. Project 1200 joined forced with the Utah Phoenix Alliance, a statewide antitobacco group for youth advocacy. The Phoenix Alliance would send text messages and e-mails to their entire youth group about an event and inviting them to come.

Project 1200 used text messaging to contact legislators. The representative, who sponsored the bill to increase the tobacco tax, told Project 1200 that the best way to get a hold of him was through text messaging. He said they cannot always pick up the phone when in a committee meeting and they may not always have their computer to check e-mail. On their Facebook page they posted all the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of the legislators who they were targeting. Then they would tell their youth group members to “send a message to your representative.” Group members would also do a cell phone blitz sending text messages every 5 minutes to legislators.

The efforts of Peter Moosman and Project 1200 had a significant impact. On the last day of the legislative when the committee was voting on the bill to reduce tobacco funding, the representative who was the appropriations cochair said that “due to the many, many, many, many, many [count them: FIVE “manys”] e-mails we received we have decided to strike down our own bill.”

Though Project 1200 started to preserve tobacco prevention and control funding, the group expanded to focus on bills aimed at increasing the tobacco tax, smoking in cars with children, and Internet tobacco sales. And even though the legislative session is over, they have continued to do various advocacy activities throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

Though the advantages of using technology in advocacy are apparent, it is not without limitations. In the 1990s, concerns were expressed about the digital divide, or in other words, the gap between demographic groups who had access to computers, telephones, and the Internet and those who did not ( National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1999 ). Researchers estimate that the digital divide still exists but is perhaps more narrow than in the past, at least in the United States ( Katz, Rice & Aspden, 2001 ). However, Internet and cell phone penetration is lower in several other countries, particularly developing countries ( Castells, 2006 ; Chinn & Fairlie, 2007 ). Researchers suggest that the global divide is explained in part income, but also by other economic factors such as quality of regulation ( Chinn & Fairlie, 2007 ). Therefore, although researchers have used cell phones in developing countries to deliver health care services ( Vital Wave Consulting, 2009 ), use of technology in advocacy may not be applicable across the globe.

One potential negative aspect of employing technology for advocacy is the possibility for selective filtering of messages. Because a person has continual access to information through Internet news sites, personal and professional blogs, Twitter, SNS, cell phones, podcasts, and so forth, it is possible that advocacy causes may get lost in the masses, making it more difficult to recruit and maintain supporters. However, on the upside, with the increased communication channels that technology provides, there is the likelihood that an increased number of people will be reached and overall awareness increased.

Engaging in advocacy efforts through use of technology is not intended to replace traditional advocacy efforts such as face to face meetings with decision makers, but rather enhance and augment them. Knowing the communication preferences of decision makers will be vital. While youth are familiar with, adept at using, and regularly use technology, some decision makers, particularly those in older age groups, may not be. So while technology may be a useful tool for organizing advocates it may not be the decision maker's preferred communication channel. However, with a continued an increase in cell phone and Internet penetration, and expanded reach of SNS, this disparity may narrow over time.

To make a significant change in the social determinants of health will require strategic advocacy on the part of all individuals. Youth as advocates is an essential part of this strategy. Technology makes it easy and convenient for youth to participate. It allows for integration of advocacy into their daily route. As a generation who is both comfortable and fluent with using technology, the key for public health is to harness these skills and direct them toward use in health advocacy. Making deliberate efforts to combine technology and youth advocacy will give youth a voice, increase their personal efficacy for participating in advocacy, and impact the social determinants that affect the health status of people in their communities and throughout the world.

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empowerment technology research paper

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Designing for empowerment – An investigation and critical reflection

Dr. Hanna Schneider received her PhD from LMU Munich under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Andreas Butz. Hanna’s work has been published at premier venues for Human-Computer Interaction such as ACM CHI and ACM IUI. Before her PhD, Hanna obtained a B.Sc. in Media Informatics from LMU Munich, a Honor degree in Technology Management from CDTM, and an M.Sc. in Human-Computer Interaction from University College London and Université Paris Sud.

Technology bears the potential to empower people – to help them tackle challenges they would otherwise give up on or not even try, to make experiences possible that they did not have access to before. One type of such technologies – the application area of the thesis presented here – is health and wellbeing technology (HWT), such as digital health records, physical activity trackers, or digital fitness coach applications. Researchers and companies alike often claim that HWTs empower people to live healthier and happier lives. However, there is reason to challenge and critically reflect on these claims and underlying assumptions as more and more researchers are finding that technologies described as empowering turn out to be “disempowering”. This critical reflection is the starting point of the thesis presented here: Can HWTs really empower people in their everyday lives? If so, how can we design for empowerment?

In my cumulative dissertation, I combine studies on existing HWTs, such as patient-controlled electronic health records and personalized mobile fitness coaches with the development of novel prototypes such as transparent digital fitness coaches that communicate their rationale to the user. By reflecting on these case studies, I come to revisit the sometimes washed-out meaning of “empowerment” in “empowering technologies”; I introduce a framework to establish conceptual clarity; and I suggest three principles to design for empowerment based on my own work and the Capability Approach by Sen and Nussbaum that aim to inform and inspire research on HWTs and beyond.

About the author

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Article note

The dissertation of Dr. Hanna Schneider has been awarded by the Dissertation Award 2018 of the Center Digitisation.Bavaria (ZD.B)

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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UN Women Strategic Plan 2022-2025

Power on: How we can supercharge an equitable digital future

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Power on: How we can supercharge an equitable digital future

From online learning and digital activism to the rapid expansion of high-paying tech jobs, the digital age has generated unprecedented opportunities for the empowerment of women and girls. But advancing technology is also introducing new forms of inequality and heightened threats to their rights and well-being.  

Women and girls remain underrepresented across the creation, use and regulation of technology. They are less likely to use digital services or enter tech-related careers, and significantly more likely to face online harassment and violence. This limits not only their own digital empowerment but also the transformative potential of technology as a whole—over the past decade, women’s exclusion from the digital sphere has shaved $1 trillion off the GDP of low- and middle-income countries.  

In the face of escalating global crises, we stand at a crossroads: allow technology to widen existing disparities and further concentrate power in the hands of the few, or put it to work on behalf of a safer, more sustainable, more equitable future for all.  

The choices we make today will profoundly impact our path forward. Here are four steps we can take in the right direction.  

1. Close all gaps in digital access and skills

In 2016, UN Women provided 576 women and girls and 384 boys in Juba, South Sudan with computer training. "My life has changed since getting this training," said Mary, pictured. "I was a midwife in the centre clinic before. I now use the computer to access midwife programs online.” Photo: UNMISS/JC McIlwaine

As our daily lives become increasingly digitalized, gender gaps in digital access threaten to leave women and girls even further behind. Though efforts to close these gaps have led to improvements in the gender parity score, the absolute gap between men and women’s access has actually increased by 20 million since 2019 . Today, 63 per cent of women have access to the internet, compared to 69 per cent of men. And women are 12 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone, a figure virtually unchanged since before the pandemic.

These global averages don’t tell the whole story: race, age, disability, socioeconomic status and location all play a role in determining women’s digital access and use. Marginalized groups such as older women, rural women and women with disabilities face significantly greater barriers to connectivity. In the least developed countries—where, despite mobile broadband signals covering 76 per cent of the population, only 25 per cent is connected —men are 52 per cent more likely to be within that online minority.

All of which makes clear that bridging access gaps will require more than just better digital infrastructure. Addressing factors like affordability, access to electricity, online privacy and safety, social norms and digital skills and literacy—all of which are mediated by gender—will be key to getting women meaningfully connected.

No one sector can do this alone: it will take collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society and women’s organizations, among others. Explicitly working gender and intersectional perspectives into digital plans and policies can help catalyze this kind of cross-sector coordination—a crucial starting point, given that only half of national information and communications technology (ICT) policies or master plans make any reference to gender today. Successful policy making will also require increased research on barriers to women’s digital access, as well as data collection on the efficacy of efforts to overcome them. 

But knowing what works isn’t enough—governments need to invest in evidence-based programmes and initiatives. Subsidizing smartphones and laptops for women and girls and incentivizing the provision of low-cost data plans can go a long way in overcoming gendered access barriers. This also applies to digital literacy programmes, which can help give women and girls the skills they need to lead, connect and successfully shape the digital space.

2. Support women and girls in STEM

At a workshop organized by UN Women’s Arab States Regional Office and UNESCO, girls and young women aged 12 to 30 learned how to code and construct robots. The workshop focused on the hands-on interaction and assembly of robotics kits and participants’ introduction to coding/programming that would allow them to control their creations.

Today, women remain a minority in both STEM education and careers, representing only 28 per cent of engineering graduates, 22 per cent of artificial intelligence workers and less than one third of tech sector employees globally. Without equal representation in these fields, women’s participation in shaping technology, research, investments and policy will remain critically limited. The same challenges apply to their access to fast-growing and high-paying careers—an inequality compounded by the fact that, as tech and digital innovation disrupt industries, women will bear the brunt of job losses.

Stereotypes about who is, and isn’t, well suited to STEM play a major role in discouraging girls from entering these fields. These beliefs become a self-perpetuating cycle: without encouragement in tech fields, girls end up lacking necessary knowledge—thus making them less likely to express interest.

Those who do make it into tech often face an actively hostile environment, with a significant pay gap ( 21 per cent ) and considerably lower rates of promotion ( 52 women for every 100 men). Nearly half ( 48 per cent ) report experiencing workplace harassment. A whopping 22 per cent say they are considering leaving the workforce altogether due to the treatment they’ve received in the sector.

Past efforts to increase women’s representation have often focused on women’s supposed disinterest in STEM fields, rather than on the systems that exclude them. That messaging has actually backfired, fueling the idea that women don’t have real interest or talent in STEM. Effective solutions must target both the barriers that force women out of STEM jobs and those that keep girls from pursuing them in the first place.

Providing universal broadband access for teachers, students and schools—and ensuring digital literacy for its users—can increase girls’ exposure to STEM, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds. Digital learning provides new opportunities to adapt educational environments and curricula to the needs of girls and students from marginalized groups.

Working to eliminate gender biases from schools is also key, as is ensuring that girls have access to women mentors in STEM fields with whom they can identify. And connecting STEM to other disciplines—as well as emphasizing its potential applications to societal challenges, which research shows is a main driver of girls’ career choices—can help increase girls’ interest as well. 

To help women succeed in a changing labour market, targeted reskilling and upskilling programmes should be created, focusing especially on groups most in danger of being left behind. And expanded labour regulations are needed to ensure that labour market transitions improve the position of women, rather than simply reproducing existing inequalities. This includes a living minimum wage, regulations against pay discrimination, and social protection systems that address, for example, discrepancies between the unpaid care burdens of women and men.

3. Create tech that meets the needs of women and girls

Elena Sam Pec, pictured as she takes a phone call on one phone while checking a text message on another, lives in Puente Viejo, Guatemala, a mostly agrarian indigenous community that relies on wooden canoes to transport their products or to access services. Digital technology can help better connect rural women like Elena with services and resources, but a lack of inclusive design means marginalized groups often stand to benefit least from new innovations. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown


Technology reflects its creators. So when women and girls are left out of tech and innovation spaces, it’s no surprise that digital tools fail to meet their needs. Severe underinvestment in, for example, digital tools that promote sexual and reproductive health is the natural outcome of decision-making processes that systematically exclude women’s voices.  

At the same time, digital access gaps mean women produce less data than men, and a lack of data disaggregation leads to unequal representation in data sets. This has major downstream effects on machine learning and AI enabled service delivery. A global analysis of 133 AI systems from 1988 to today found that 44.2 per cent displayed gender bias, with 25.7 per cent exhibiting both gender and racial bias—which led to lower service quality, unequal resource distribution and the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes.  

This problem has gone largely unchecked due to the inadequacy of tech sector oversight. Even where ethical frameworks have been developed, they lack safeguards—and since regulation has been largely left to companies themselves, many have ignored or underinvested in harm mitigation strategies.  

Creating more inclusive, less biased tech starts with design and regulation processes rooted in human rights. That means centering the voices of marginalized and vulnerable women, as well as social and behavioral scientists and human rights experts, in the design of new digital tools. It also means explicitly addressing tensions between the exercise of different rights online, such as freedom of expression vs. right to safety. And it means making ethical frameworks enforceable by grounding them in international human rights standards and norms.  

Regulatory reform can’t be left up to the tech sector. Governments need to step in to outline companies’ responsibilities, mandate monitoring mechanisms such as gender impact assessments, and ensure data use transparency through mechanisms like mandatory artificial intelligence audits. At the international level, digital governance will be crucial to ensuring that developing technology is aligned with the common good rather than just with the interests of multinational corporations.

4. Address technology-facilitated gender-based violence

Jonada Shukarasi is one of three 16-year-old girls who developed an app aimed at tackling the severe problem of domestic violence across Albania. Called GjejZâ (Find your Voice), the app provides comprehensive information to women suffering from abusive behavior. Jonada and her team were awarded first place scholarships at the 2019 Technovation World Pitch Summit for their work. Photo: UN Women/Eduard Pagria

Despite its prevalence and gravity, there is no universally accepted definition of technology-facilitated gender-based violence, but it can be understood as any act of violence committed, assisted or aggravated by the use of ICT on the basis of gender. Though such acts often take place in the virtual sphere, they result in tangible harm—physical, sexual, psychological, social, political and/or economic. This kind of violence doesn’t end when women log off: there’s a continuum between real-world and online violence, with technology helping to perpetuate and heighten surveillance, trafficking and other forms of abuse.

In the online sphere, gender-based violence also forces women and girls to self-censor and deplatform, limiting their ability to engage and participate virtually. As social media becomes an increasingly crucial space for both socializing and organizing, it has also become a key site of gendered disinformation, misinformation, sexist hate speech and more—all of which undermine women’s online expression and movement.

For women who face intersecting forms of discrimination, including women of color, women with disabilities and LGBTIQ+ people, the risk is even higher. Same with women in the public eye—journalists, politicians and women’s rights defenders, for example—who face significantly higher levels of hate speech and other violence than their male counterparts.

Beyond the lack of a formal definition, coherent global norms and standards on online-gender based violence do not exist. As tech generates new forms of violence—such as nonconsensual deepfakes—existing legal frameworks cease to apply. And online violence (like all forms of gender-based violence) is seriously underreported, with only 1 in 4 women reporting violent acts to the platform where they took place, and even fewer—14 per cent—reporting to a protective agency .

All of which is to say, action is urgently needed. Expanded legal frameworks must be developed in coordination with women’s organizations and centered around human rights and survivor-informed approaches. Policy makers should coordinate with the justice sector, civil society organizations, the media and other sectors to develop coherent responses and strategies for mitigation. And design processes based in human rights can improve reporting and moderation systems, helping to take the onus off victims.

Finally, teaching digital citizenship can help cover issues of online violence—while also instilling empathy and ethical digital media use, and teaching boys and men to become advocates for gender equality.

  • Information and communications technology (ICT)
  • Economic empowerment
  • Ending violence against women and girls
  • Gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Innovation and technology

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Open Access

Peer-reviewed

Research Article

Technology empowerment: Digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance—Evidence from China’s manufacturing sector

Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Funding acquisition, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation School of Management, Dalian Polytechnic University, Dalian, China

Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Software, Visualization, Writing – original draft

* E-mail: [email protected]

ORCID logo

Roles Writing – review & editing

  • Xianyun Wu, 
  • Longji Li, 
  • Dekuan Liu, 

PLOS

  • Published: April 17, 2024
  • https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029
  • Peer Review
  • Reader Comments

Table 1

In light of the long-term constraints posed by the "dual carbon" objective, can digital technology emerge as a transformative solution for enterprises to embark on a sustainable development trajectory? The existing body of research has yet to reach a consensus. In order to shed further light on the intricate relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance of enterprises, this study empirically examines the mechanisms and boundaries through which digital transformation influences ESG performance, based on observational data from A-share manufacturing listed companies in Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange spanning from 2011 to 2021. The findings demonstrate that digital transformation exerts a significant positive impact on the ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises. Mechanism analysis reveals that the enabling effect of digital transformation primarily enhances company transparency, thereby fostering continuous improvements in ESG performance among manufacturing enterprises. The performance expectation gap will give rise to the phenomenon of "stop-loss in time" and impede the promotional impact of digital transformation. Further investigation into industrial characteristics and industry competition intensity indicates that state-owned enterprises and those operating within highly competitive environments experience more pronounced effects of digital transformation on their ESG performance. This study expands the mechanism and boundary of digital transformation on ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises, and provides a new perspective for manufacturing enterprises to realize the collaborative transformation of digital and green.

Citation: Wu X, Li L, Liu D, Li Q (2024) Technology empowerment: Digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance—Evidence from China’s manufacturing sector. PLoS ONE 19(4): e0302029. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029

Editor: Jianhua Zhu, Harbin Institute of Technology, CHINA

Received: November 29, 2023; Accepted: March 26, 2024; Published: April 17, 2024

Copyright: © 2024 Wu et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the manuscript and its Supporting information files.

Funding: This study is a stage research result of the Liaoning Economic and Social Development Research Project 2024 (Project No. 2024lslybwzzkt-034), the Liaoning Social Science Planning Fund Educational Science Project (Project No. L21AED005), and the Dalian Municipal Science and Technology Bureau’s Soft Science Project (Project No. 2023JJ13FG087).

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Introduction

In 2004, the United Nations introduced the concept of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) in its initiative report titled "Who Cares Wins" [ 1 ]. This report provided a new direction for businesses on how to implement sustainable development principles. The concept of ESG originates from ethical investment and responsible investment, rejecting the profit-centric business philosophy, and advocating for enterprises to incorporate environmental, social, and governance factors into their investment decisions while considering economic benefits [ 2 – 4 ]. Currently, there is a global wave of low-carbon transformation underway, leading all countries worldwide to introduce ESG-related policies and regulations. Examples include "the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive" and "IFRS S1—General Requirements for Disclosure of Information Sustainability-related Financial Information". In recent years, China’s "dual carbon" goal has accelerated the development process of ESG in China [ 5 ]. Regulators have issued a series of policies and regulations that gradually require listed companies to disclose ESG-related information; thus making ESG practices an essential aspect for enterprise development. However, challenges such as insufficient willingness and limited participation in specific corporate practices undermine the positive impact of the ESG system on China’s economic transformation. Therefore, it is crucial to explore both internal and external factors influencing enterprises’ performance in implementing ESG.

At present, China is in a critical period of transformation from a manufacturing power to a manufacturing power [ 6 ]. Manufacturing is the backbone of the country’s economic development, Facing the medium and long term constraints of "dual carbon" target, whether manufacturing enterprises can explore a sustainable transformation path is related to the long-term healthy development of China’s economy [ 7 ]. The wave of digital transformation offers a novel perspective for the sustainable development of manufacturing enterprises. Digital transformation is regarded as the extensive application of digital technology across various aspects of enterprise survival, operation, and sales [ 8 ]. Previous studies have demonstrated that the adoption of digital technology can enhance the economic efficiency of manufacturing enterprises by improving resource allocation efficiency, innovation capability and Profit level [ 9 – 11 ]. However, can the technological advancements and resource utilization resulting from digital transformation effectively stimulate the inherent capabilities of manufacturing enterprises to enhance their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance? Although previous studies have made preliminary explorations into the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance [ 12 , 13 ], the mechanism underlying digital transformation remains incompletely elucidated, necessitating further exploration of working conditions. Therefore, this study aims to further expand the existing research on this topic in order to address the limitations identified in previous studies.

Building upon China’s "dual carbon" goal policy context, this study delves into the potential of digital transformation in the manufacturing industry to stimulate endogenous drivers for enhancing ESG performance within enterprises. This investigation aims to unveil the underlying mechanisms of digital transformation, augment existing research findings, and hold significant theoretical and practical implications. Consequently, this study adopts corporate transparency as a foundational aspect and integrates the performance expectation gap into its research framework. Empirical analysis is conducted using observation data from A-share manufacturing listed companies on Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges spanning from 2011 to 2021 to examine the boundaries and mechanisms through which digital transformation influences corporate ESG performance.

Compared to previous studies, this study innovatively addresses the following aspects: (1) Previous studies did not investigate whether the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance of enterprises would be influenced during periods of declining enterprise performance. By introducing the situational condition of performance period gap, this study further defines the impact of digital transformation on ESG performance and enriches research on between digital transformation and performance feedback. (2) From a corporate transparency perspective, this paper elucidates the mechanism through which digital transformation affects ESG performance in manufacturing enterprises, offering new theoretical references and practical insights for sustainable development enabled by digital technology.

Literature review

Since the inception of the ESG concept in 2004, it has garnered significant attention from investors and business managers owing to its unique ability to balance economic benefits with social values. Consequently, academic research in ESG-related fields has witnessed substantial growth [ 14 ], with scholars predominantly favoring investigations into the impact of ESG [ 15 ]. Mainstream scholars contend that ESG practices can enhance enterprise brand valuation and foster green innovation capabilities, thereby mitigating business risks and ultimately improving enterprise value [ 16 – 19 ]. Scholars have also started examining the influencing factors of enterprise ESG performance. Previous research indicates that factors such as regional digital finance development and environmental protection tax legislation can significantly contribute to enhancing enterprise ESG performance [ 20 , 21 ]. However, existing studies pay more attention to the external factors that affect the ESG performance of enterprises. In order to fully play the positive role of ESG system in the low-carbon transformation of Chinese enterprises, it is necessary to stimulate the endogenous motivation of enterprises to improve ESG performance.

With the advent of a new wave of scientific and technological revolution, digital technologies such as big data and blockchain offer a novel avenue for facilitating the high-quality development of manufacturing enterprises. Esteemed scholars contend that leveraging digital technology can enhance resource allocation efficiency, innovation capabilities, and customer information advantage, thereby fostering the high-quality development of manufacturing enterprises [ 9 , 11 , 22 ]. In addition to researching the economic benefits of digital transformation, scholars have also begun to focus on its non-economic value. Specifically, they argue that the application of digital technology can facilitate green innovation in enterprises and lead to a reduction in carbon emissions [ 23 , 24 ]. With the advancement of research, scholars have started to establish a connection between digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance, leading to two main categories in existing research findings: the "empowerment" effect and the “too much is not good” effect. The "empowerment" effect is specifically reflected in the fact that digital transformation can improve the ESG performance of enterprises by reducing agency costs and improving corporate reputation and dynamic capabilities [ 25 , 26 ]. The “too much is not good” effect is specifically reflected in the fact that a high level of digitalization may weaken the ability and motivation of enterprises to carry out ESG practices. Asymmetric digital transformation and organizational transformation process make it difficult to play the enabling effect of digital technology, which may lead to "information overload" and reduce the information processing ability of enterprises. In addition, a large amount of capital investment in the materialization of digital technology may induce "crowding-out effect" and delay the process of enterprise green transformation [ 27 – 29 ].

The concept of transparency emerged from research in the field of information disclosure [ 30 ]. As research on information disclosure expanded, scholars introduced the notion of "company transparency," which refers to providing specific company information to external stakeholders [ 31 ]. With the deepening of research, Chinese scholars have refined the concept of company transparency, that is, the higher the transparency of a company, the wider and deeper the scope and level of external investors’ access to internal information of a company, and the stronger the liquidity of information [ 32 ]. The application of digital technology offers a novel perspective for researching company transparency. However, upon reviewing existing literature, it is evident that scholars tend to associate digital transformation with analysts’ forecasts and corporate governance [ 33 , 34 ]. These studies suggest that while there may be a close relationship between digital transformation and company transparency, further exploration is necessary.

The aforementioned analysis reveals that despite the existence of relevant studies demonstrating the correlation between digital transformation and ESG performance, certain limitations persist, primarily in the following aspects: (1) the existing research mainly discusses the influence between the two from the perspective of internal control, green innovation and information disclosure quality, and its internal influence mechanism needs to be further expanded. (2) The measurement approach for assessing the extent of digital transformation within enterprises remains singular, making it challenging to mitigate potential deviations resulting from false corporate disclosures. (3) What are the requisite conditions for effectively harnessing the impact of digital transformation empowerment?

Building upon this premise, the present study adopts corporate transparency as a focal point, integrates the performance expectation gap into the research framework, and explores whether digital transformation can incentivize enterprises to engage in ESG practices. The present study contributes to the existing literature on the mechanisms of digital transformation, elucidates the impact of digital transformation in situations characterized by performance expectation gaps, and addresses a research gap in this domain.

Theoretical analysis and research hypotheses

Digital transformation and enterprise esg performance.

The process of digital transformation involves a comprehensive reshaping of the traditional business model, governance mechanism, and organizational structure of an enterprise by integrating artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, and other digital technologies into various aspects such as production, sales, and transportation [ 35 ]. Existing literature primarily focuses on the economic performance of digital transformation and its individual non-economic aspects [ 36 , 37 ], while only recently has there been exploration of the relationship between digital transformation and integrated environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance [ 38 ]. The present study posits that the digital transformation is poised to enhance the ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises through bolstering their capabilities and fostering intrinsic motivation.

From the perspective of behavioral outcomes, digital transformation improves the comprehensive strength of enterprises to carry out ESG practices. First of all, the rapid development of digital finance has broadened the financing channels of manufacturing enterprises [ 39 ]. It has also improved the matching efficiency of both parties of credit, effectively reduced the probability of resource mismatch and credit default, solved the financial discrimination problem of "Large enterprises are allocated a substantial loan quota, whereas small enterprises receive a limited loan quota" [ 40 ]. To a certain extent, and reduced the dependence of manufacturing enterprises on "resource-based" shareholders and large customers due to financing constraints [ 9 , 41 ]. This has greatly improved the discourse power of environment-sensitive executives and improved the intellectual support for enterprises’ ESG practices. In addition, the application of digital technology can refine the production and research and development process of products, reduce the probability of research and development manipulation [ 42 ], and provide conditions for enterprises to give full play to green innovation resources. This undoubtedly helps improve the green innovation ability of manufacturing enterprises, and then promote the quality and efficiency of green patents of enterprises, and provide technical support for ESG practices of manufacturing enterprises [ 43 , 44 ]. The application of digital platforms and big data technology has broken the barriers to information acquisition of manufacturing enterprises, narrowed the distance between enterprises and customers, and enabled enterprises to accurately grasp the differentiated needs of customers and improve the competitiveness of enterprises’ products [ 45 ]. At the same time, the application of digital technology improves the ability of enterprises to integrate internal resources and acquire external resources, blurs the business boundary of enterprises, transforms the single chain management structure of enterprises into a diversified network management structure, improves the sustainable competitiveness of enterprises, and provides economic possibilities for enterprises’ ESG practices [ 46 , 47 ]. Digital transformation consolidates the overall strength of manufacturing enterprises through the three aspects of "talent-technology-economy", and provides realistic conditions for manufacturing enterprises to improve their ESG performance.

From the perspective of behavioral motivation, digital transformation improves the willingness of manufacturing enterprises to carry out ESG practices. On the one hand, the application of digital technology breaks the constraints of time and space of traditional information exchange, connects stakeholders together through digital platforms, and improves the frequency of internal and external information interaction of enterprises [ 48 ]. Active disclosure of enterprises is no longer the only channel for stakeholders to obtain enterprise information, narrowing the "information fault line" between enterprises and stakeholders. It provides an opportunity for external investors to realize the identity transformation from "free rider" to "administrator" in corporate governance [ 49 ]. In addition, the application of big data technology makes any behavior of enterprises to follow, and R&D manipulation, false information disclosure and other violations are contained, which promotes the improvement of the quality of information disclosed externally and strengthens the internal motivation of enterprises to improve ESG performance [ 50 , 51 ]. On the other hand, digital transformation, as a positive signal of change, will attract the attention of external market players such as the government, analysts and media [ 52 ]. When enterprises are placed under the "spotlight", their business behaviors will be amplified infinitely, resulting in a sharp increase in the pressure of external attention, which is both an opportunity and a challenge for enterprises. Positive ESG practices will be spread rapidly by the media and analysts, improve the corporate image, and gradually increase its recognition among the government and consumers, It improves the advantages of enterprises in obtaining political resources and consumer trust [ 4 , 53 ]. However, when market observers dramatize poor market performance, the negative impact of enterprises rises geometrically and may be "labeled" as a shackles that restrict the development of enterprises. Therefore, in this case, the willingness of enterprises to ESG practices will increase significantly. Based on the above analysis, this paper proposes the following hypothesis:

  • H1: Digital transformation will promote the improvement of ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises.

Digital transformation, company transparency and corporate ESG performance

This study posits that digital transformation primarily enhances company transparency, thereby continuously improving the ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises. On the one hand, it mitigates the issue of information asymmetry and facilitates external shareholders’ participation in corporate governance through its traceability, immutability, and timeliness [ 54 , 55 ]. Furthermore, it curbs managers from exploiting information asymmetry to manipulate environmental and social responsibility for profit-driven stock price escalation while enhancing internal governance transparency to improve non-financial information disclosure quality [ 50 ].

On the other hand, the application of digital technology will improve the circulation frequency of internal and external information of enterprises. The existence of asymmetric information between enterprises and stakeholders also gives rise to stakeholders’ distrust and even aversion to enterprises with high information acquisition costs and low information disclosure quality, which reduces the market attention of such enterprises [ 56 , 57 ]. In order to obtain more external resources to make up for the loss of sustainable strategy, enterprises are more willing to take advantage of the convenience of digital technology and the characteristics of low information disclosure cost to actively promote the positive achievements of corporate environment and social responsibility, and shift from passively improving the quality of information disclosure to actively improving it [ 58 ]. At the same time, the diversified information sharing channels derived from digital transformation make it easier for enterprises to identify false or low-quality information disclosure behaviors, which improves the quantity, quality and depth of enterprise information obtained by stakeholders [ 34 ]. External analysts, media and other market intermediaries can make more objective and fair market evaluations [ 59 , 60 ]. It helps enterprises to improve their green and environmental reputation among consumers and governments, and encourages enterprises to carry out ESG practices with confidence. To sum up, company transparency is the channel through which digital transformation can improve the ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises. Based on this, this paper puts forward the following hypothesis:

  • H2: The digital transformation facilitates the enhancement of ESG performance through augmenting company transparency.

Digital transformation, performance expectation gap and enterprise ESG performance

The performance expectation gap refers to the difference between an enterprise’s actual performance and its expected performance [ 61 ]. According to the theory of corporate behavior, the performance expectation gap is an important reference for managers to formulate corporate future strategies [ 62 ]. Among them, the expected performance represents the minimum level of output anticipated by management, and whether the actual performance aligns with management’s expectations will significantly influence subsequent strategic planning decisions.

Currently, there is no consensus among academia regarding the potential impact of the performance expectation gap. On one hand, when managers observe that actual performance falls short of expectations, it may lead to a "make or break" situation. According to the Resource Based View, an enterprise’s competitive advantage relies on its unique resources [ 63 ]. When an enterprise fails to meet expectations in terms of performance, its competitive advantage begins to decline. As a crucial component of enterprises’ sustainable development strategy, ESG practices may temporarily compromise their operational performance due to high investment costs and extended return periods. However, forward-thinking managers recognize that ESG practices hold significant appeal in terms of corporate reputation, political resources, and consumer recognition [ 64 , 65 ]. In order to establish sustainable competitive advantages for enterprises, managers are more inclined to forego short-term interests and pursue long-term developmental benefits. At the same time, the talent reserve and organizational structure of enterprises need to be timely matched with the process of digital transformation to play an enabling role [ 66 ]. However, because the enterprise performance is not up to expectations, the capital market will cause doubts about the operating conditions of enterprises, making it more difficult for enterprises to obtain resources from the outside. In the face of "internal and external challenges", managers will use limited organizational resources to make up for the gap between the application of digital technology and the organizational governance system, give full play to the enabling role of digital technology, and improve the level of digital governance of enterprises [ 30 ].

However, the performance expectation gap can also result in the occurrence of a phenomenon known as "stop-loss in time"effect. The decline in business performance leads to internal anxiety among management and doubts from external investors, which subsequently affects managers’ judgment and execution capabilities [ 67 , 68 ]. Since both digital transformation and ESG practices require significant resource investments, companies that are struggling financially may find it challenging to sustain these high-cost reform solely with their own resources. As a result, the enterprise’s transformation process slows down and ESG practices are reduced or even suspended. Additionally, according to threat-rigidity theory [ 69 ], when faced with continuous expectation gaps, enterprises tend to prioritize survival over thriving. Consequently, decision-making becomes more conservative as organizations immersed in pessimism experience sluggish information processing and acceptance capacities [ 70 , 71 ]. In such circumstances, limited market information becomes the basis for strategic decisions made by management. Choosing riskier reforms or investments during this period would expose enterprises to devastating strategic risks that not only fail to alleviate their predicament but also deplete their resources further. Furthermore, lack of resources exacerbates the difficulty of implementing ESG practices at this time. Even if enterprise management is willing to exhaust all options in pursuing original strategic goals, they remain powerless due to resource constraints [ 72 ]. Based on the aforementioned analysis, this paper proposes the following hypothesis:

  • H3a: Performance expectation gap has a positive moderating effect on the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises.
  • H3b: Performance expectation gap has a negative moderating effect on the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises.

Research design

Research sample and data sources.

This study utilizes a sample of manufacturing enterprises listed on the A-shares of the Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange, covering the period from 2011 to 2021. To ensure consistency with previous studies, the initial sample is refined through the following steps: ① Exclusion of samples classified as ST and *ST in the current year; ② Elimination of samples with missing data on core variables; ③ Exclusion of samples with less than three consecutive years of data; ④ To mitigate the impact of extreme values, all continuous variables are winsorized at the 1% and 99% levels. Consequently, a total of 6044 observation samples are obtained.

The original financial data utilized in this study, as well as the robustness test concerning the extent of digital transformation, were sourced exclusively from the China Stock Market & Accounting Research Database(CSMAR). Furthermore, the word frequency analysis pertaining to digital transformation primarily relied upon annual reports disclosed by listed companies through Juchao Consulting Network, Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and Shanghai Stock Exchange. The data analysis was conducted using Python and Stata version 16.0.

Measurement of variables

Dependent variable..

ESG performance (ESG). Currently, there exist notable disparities in the measurement of ESG ratings domestically and internationally, with influential rating systems including MSCI, Bloomberg, Shangdao Ronglv, Huazheng, among others. The ESG rating score provided by Bloomberg was chosen as the proxy index for the core explanatory variable, based on the sample characteristics outlined in this paper.

Independent variables.

Digital transformation (Digital). The measurement method employed in this study for assessing the extent of digital transformation primarily draws upon existing research [ 73 ], utilizing the construction of digital dictionaries and text analysis to determine the degree of digital transformation within enterprises. In contrast to previous approaches that relied on intangible assets related to digital technology, questionnaire surveys, and ERP system applications [ 74 – 76 ], this measurement method establishes a relatively objective and comprehensive digital term dictionary based on semantic expressions found in national policies pertaining to the digital economy. Subsequently, it employs text analysis techniques to construct a more holistic indicator reflecting the level of digitization among Chinese enterprises. Meanwhile, considering the "right-skewed" feature word frequency data and avoiding the impact of enterprises not carrying out digital transformation, the total word frequency is added by 1 and then logarithmized.

Mediating variables.

Company transparency (Tra). Drawing upon the methodologies proposed by LANG et al. (2012) and Xiang et al. (2020) [ 77 , 78 ], this study adopts four comprehensive indicators to assess company transparency: earnings quality, audit company quality, information disclosure rating, and analyst attention.

empowerment technology research paper

The second indicator is the quality of the audit company, which is measured by whether the listed company employs the auditors of the Big Four domestic accounting firms to conduct audit.

The third indicator is the information disclosure rating, which primarily pertains to the disclosure ratings of the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges. In this context, A denotes excellent, B represents good, C signifies pass, and D indicates fail. This study assigns a numerical value to each rating in descending order: A = 4 and D = 1. Consequently, a higher score corresponds to a superior quality of information disclosure.

The fourth indicator is analyst attention, referring to the existing research, how many analysts (teams) have followed the company within a year. in order to avoid the impact of 0 value, it is added by 1 to take the logarithm.

Based on the aforementioned four indicators, this study constructs a comprehensive indicator to assess company transparency (Tra) by adopting the approach proposed by Xin Qingquan et al. (2014) [ 79 ]. This is accomplished as follows: computing the average of sample percentiles for each variable. Considering the delayed initiation of SSE’s information disclosure rating and missing data in certain years, the company transparency index is determined as the average of three remaining index sample percentiles. A higher Tra index indicates greater company transparency.

Moderating variables.

empowerment technology research paper

The enterprise’s historical expected performance (HA i,t ) is determined by a weighted combination of its historical expected performance in period t − 1 and the actual operating performance in period t − 1, where α represents the weight assigned to this combination and takes a value between (0,1). Following the practices of Cao Yanan (2023) and Chen(2008) [ 81 , 82 ], we set α as 0.4 for calculating historical expected performance. The comprehensive expected performance is calculated by weighting the historical expected performance of the enterprise and the industry’s expected performance. SA represents the enterprise’s expected performance in relation to the industry, which is determined as the mean value of ROA for all enterprises in the industry except Company i. The β weight setting follows Guo Rong et al. (2019) and Rudy (2016) [ 83 , 84 ]. Initially set at 0.5, β increases by 0.1 incrementally each time. The weight is determined based on model fitting, with results indicating that the best fit occurs when β = 0.5; therefore, this paper selects β = 0.5 to weigh the comprehensive expected performance.

When the actual performance falls below the expected performance (P-A<0), a negative gap is observed between the actual and expected performances. Conversely, when the actual performance exceeds the expected performance, a positive gap in expected performance is evident. To further analyze the impact of digital transformation on ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises considering this expectation-performance gap, we introduce a dummy variable L1 in this study. The value of L1 is set to 1 when the expectation-performance gap is < 0 and 0 when it is ≥0. The constructed variable L1*gap i,t represents instances where actual performance lags behind expectations, with smaller values indicating larger gaps. Additionally, for ease of comprehension, we multiply L1*gap i,t by -1 to obtain an indicator for the expected performance gap (Ngap i,t ). Higher values indicate greater disparities between actual and anticipated performances.

Control variables.

Drawing on the existing literature, This paper adds enterprise Size (Size), asset-liability ratio (Lev), growth rate of operating income (Grow), Cashflow ratio (Cashflow), proportion of independent directors (Indira), years of company establishment (Listage) and shareholding ratio of the largest shareholder (Top1) as control variables in the regression model. The detailed variable definition and calculation method are shown in Table 1 .

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t001

Model setting

empowerment technology research paper

Empirical results analysis

Descriptive statistics and correlation analysis.

The descriptive statistical results of the main variables in this paper are presented in Table 2 . Among these, the mean value of ESG performance for manufacturing enterprises is 28.199, indicating a moderate level of environmental, social, and governance performance among the sample manufacturing enterprises that are implementing the "dual carbon" target. there is still significant room for improvement. Furthermore, the minimum value observed among the sample enterprises is 11.488, while the maximum value is 56.121, suggesting a substantial disparity in ESG practice input between leaders and followers. The digital variable exhibits a maximum value of 6.544 and a minimum value of 1.386, highlighting considerable variation in digital transformation degrees across sample enterprises. The results of other control variables are basically similar to those of existing studies [ 28 , 29 ].

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t002

Additionally, this study conducts a Pearson correlation test on the main variables, and the results demonstrate a significantly positive correlation coefficient between digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance, thereby providing preliminary support for hypothesis 1 proposed in this paper. Furthermore, the selected control variables exhibit a statistically significant correlation with enterprise ESG performance, indicating the reasonable selection of control variables in this study. The average VIF of each variable in the model regression is 1.18, indicating that there is no serious multicollinearity problem in the model.

Benchmark regression results

The regression results in Table 3 demonstrate the impact of digital transformation on enterprise ESG performance. In Column (1), only industry and year dummy variables are controlled, while other control variables selected in this study are not included. The regression analysis reveals a significantly positive coefficient of 0.304 for Digital at the 1% level, providing preliminary evidence for a positive correlation between digital transformation and ESG performance. Building upon these findings, Column (2) incorporates additional control variables identified in this research, resulting in a slight decrease in the coefficient of Digital; however, it remains statistically significant at the 1% level. These results indicate that even after accounting for industry-specific factors, temporal effects, and firm characteristics, digital transformation continues to play a significant role in enhancing enterprise ESG performance, thereby confirming Hypothesis 1 posited in this paper. The aforementioned findings demonstrate that the benefits derived from digital transformation, including technological advancements, resource optimization, and enhanced management capabilities, can serve as an endogenous driving force for enterprises to engage in ESG practices. These advantages not only provide the necessary material foundation but also offer technical support for businesses to effectively implement ESG initiatives.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t003

Moreover, considering the coefficients of control variables, it can be observed that well-established large enterprises with ample cash flow and high ownership concentration exhibit a greater inclination and capability to leverage the benefits derived from digital transformation in order to enhance their ESG performance. Conversely, enterprises with limited revenue capacity and a high debt ratio display a higher degree of reluctance towards allocating scarce resources for ESG practices due to prevailing survival pressures. The findings of this study are in line with the existing body of research [ 86 , 87 ].

Robustness and endogeneity test

Change the measurement method of variables..

Firstly, in order to enhance stock prices and attract the attention of uninformed investors, some enterprises tend to embellish facts in their annual reports, extensively publicize their digital transformation blueprint through verbose narratives, and captivate investors with enticing stories and aspirations. Consequently, relying solely on keyword frequency analysis within the annual report becomes inadequate for accurately assessing the extent of digital transformation within these enterprises [ 88 ]. Therefore, this study adopts the Digital Transformation Index from CSMAR as a substitute variable that encompasses various dimensions including word frequency related to enterprise transformation, investment in digital resources, formulation of digital strategies, alignment of organizational structure with digital transformation goals, accomplishments in digital transformation endeavors, and application of digital technologies. This comprehensive measurement system aims to rectify the limitations associated with single-indicator assessments. Following a baseline regression approach, we incorporate the Digital Transformation Index (Digital_index) into our model for re-regression analysis. The results are presented as M1 in Table 4 where it is evident that the regression coefficient for Digital_index exhibits significant positive association at a 1% level of significance–consistent with previous findings.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t004

Moreover, this study employs the ESG rating provided by huazheng as an alternative index (ESG_H). Specifically, a value of 9 is assigned to AAA and subsequently decreases in descending order. A higher score indicates better ESG performance of the company. To minimize result deviation caused by different rating systems, the mean value of quarterly ratings is selected as a substitute variable in this paper. The aforementioned empirical method is employed to test the robustness of the baseline regression results, which are presented in M2 within Table 4 . Notably, the Digital regression coefficient exhibits significant positive association at a 1% level, thereby further confirming H1 posited in this study.

Extend the observation period.

Considering that it takes a certain amount of time for the technological, management and resource advantages brought by digital transformation to affect the ESG practice activities of enterprises, we draw on the practice of existing research to extend the observation period and delay ESG by one, two and three periods. The results are shown in M3, M4 and M5 in Table 4 . The regression results are significantly positive at the levels of 1%, 5% and 10% respectively, indicating that H1 in this paper is still robust after the observation period is extended.

Fixed effect model.

Considering the possible estimation errors caused by unobservable factors that do not change with individuals, this study incorporates individual fixed effects and industry-year joint fixed effects into the model to enhance its robustness. Moreover, given that the fixed effect of high latitude already encompasses the impact of industry and year, dummy variables for industry and year are not included in the regression analysis. The results, presented in M6 of Table 4 , exhibit a significantly positive association at a 1% significance level.

In order to address the endogeneity problem arising from potential sample self-selection, this study employs propensity score matching (PSM) for testing purposes. Firstly, enterprises are categorized based on the median degree of digital transformation. Subsequently, all control variables selected in this study are utilized as covariates to pair the samples using a 1:1 nearest neighbor matching method. To ensure the validity of the matching results, a balance test is conducted on the matched outcomes, with all normalized bias absolute values being less than 10%. This indicates that the matching results largely meet the requirements. Finally, after matching, regression analysis is performed on 3182 samples and presented in M7 of Table 4 . The regression coefficient of Digital remains significantly positive at a level of significance of 1%, indicating that the conclusion remains robust after addressing sample self-selection issues.

Tool variable method.

Given the potential reverse causality between digital transformation and ESG performance of enterprises, wherein digital transformation can foster improvements in ESG performance while enterprises exhibiting good ESG performance may also demonstrate a greater inclination towards undertaking digital transformation, this study employs the instrumental variable method to mitigate endogeneity issues arising from reverse causality. Referring to the existing research [ 89 , 90 ], we select regional communication level as the instrumental variable in this study. This choice is motivated by the influence of digital infrastructure development and communication level in the city where enterprises are located on their digital transformation process. A higher communication level enhances support for information, technology, consumer demand, and other aspects crucial for enterprises, thereby accelerating their digital transformation process. Hence, this variable satisfies the correlation condition of instrumental variables. Additionally, regional communication level primarily reflects micro-level application of information technology and does not directly impact enterprise ESG performance, meeting the exogeneity condition. Specifically, we employ mobile phone penetration rate (per 100 people) in the province where an enterprise operates as a proxy for regional communication level. As shown in Table 5 , two-stage regression results using instrumental variables exhibit significantly positive effects consistent with previous findings. The Kleibergen-Paap rk LM statistic is significant at the level of 1%, which passes the underidentification test. The Kleibergen-Paap rk Wald F statistic is 53.288, which is larger than the 16.38 critical value of F test at 10% level in weak instrumental variable identification, and passes the weak instrumental variable test, indicating that the selection of instrumental variables in this paper is reasonable to some extent. To sum up, after considering the endogeneity problem, digital transformation can still promote the improvement of ESG performance.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t005

Further analysis

Mechanism test..

empowerment technology research paper

Columns (4) and (5) of Table 3 show the test results of the action mechanism of digital transformation affecting enterprise ESG performance. Among them, the coefficient before digital transformation in Column (4) is significantly positive, indicating that technological advantages and organizational structure changes brought by digital transformation will significantly improve company transparency. Column (5) is the estimated result of Model 3. The results show that the coefficient of company transparency (Tra) is significantly positive, indicating that company transparency plays an intermediary role in the process of digital transformation affecting the ESG performance of enterprises. The research findings demonstrate that the utilization of digital technology enhances corporate transparency, thereby augmenting the frequency of interaction between enterprises and external investors as well as improving internal supervision efficiency. Consequently, this engenders both internal and external governance effects, ultimately enhancing corporate ESG performance.

At the same time, Sobel method is used to test the mediating effect, in which the z-value of Sobel test is 3.96, p<0.01, which further verfies H2 hypothesis in this paper.

Moderating effect test.

empowerment technology research paper

The empirical results of the moderating effect are presented in (6) of Table 3 , revealing a significantly negative regression coefficient (-2.787) for the interaction term (Digital*Ngap) at a 5% significance level. This indicates that the performance expectation gap does not trigger a "make or break" effect on enterprises. On the contrary, due to the presence of this gap, internal survival pressures and external investor doubts lead to reduced environmental protection investments and fulfillment of social responsibility by enterprise management.

Furthermore, when actual performance falls short of expectations, disputes may arise within internal management regarding whether to continue with strategic reforms. If there is an entrenched resistance within management circles, managers from different positions face significant threats. In such circumstances, persisting with implementing reform strategies escalates strategic risks and potentially triggers a "stop-loss in time" effect. Additionally, based on limited attention hypothesis, conflicts over internal control rights further divert managerial focus away from utilizing digital transformation’s technical advantages to enhance internal governance efficiency–resulting in declining corporate environmental, social, and governance performance levels. The hypothesis H3b in this paper is thus confirmed, indicating that the performance expectation gap plays a negative moderating role in the relationship between digital transformation and corporate ESG realization.

Heterogeneity analysis

Nature of property rights..

State-owned enterprises possess inherent advantages in resource acquisition, market competition, innovation strength, strategic reform risk, and other aspects due to their unique institutional advantages [ 92 ]. The process of digital transformation requires significant capital investment, the recruitment of digital technology talents, and the implementation of digital technologies. State-owned enterprises enjoy strong credit endorsement which makes financial institutions and external investors prefer supporting them financially [ 93 ]. This effectively mitigates the crowding-out effect on innovation behavior, environment, and society caused by dedicated capital investment during enterprise reform.

Moreover, state-owned enterprises’ excellent corporate image attracts more talent compared to non-state-owned enterprises, thereby addressing the personnel allocation-technical resources mismatch during digital transformation that hinders leveraging the enabling effect of digital technology. Therefore, as key players in China’s ESG system and national strategic policy implementation initiatives, state-owned enterprises are more proactive in improving their ESG performance. By contrast, non-state-owned enterprises prioritize seeking economic benefits through leveraging competitive advantages offered by digital technology amidst fierce market competition and environmental uncertainty. Non-economic benefits are often not their core objective. Therefore, based on this analysis,the promotion effect of digital transformation on ESG performance is significantly greater for state-owned enterprises than for non-state-owned ones.

This study categorizes enterprises into state-owned and non-state-owned based on their ownership nature. Columns (1) and (2) of Table 6 present the regression results for different ownership types. The findings indicate that, in comparison to non-state-owned enterprises, state-owned enterprises exhibit a higher regression coefficient, suggesting a more significant role of digital transformation in enabling state-owned enterprises.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.t006

Intensity of industry competition.

The level of market competition within an industry significantly influences the strategic formulation of enterprises [ 94 ]. In highly competitive industries, products exhibit high homogeneity and strong substitutability. When transformative breakthroughs in product innovation are unattainable, enterprises are inclined to leverage digital technology’s information resources, organizational changes, business models, and other competitive advantages to enhance non-financial performance in environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and corporate governance. This approach aims to bolster enterprise reputation, cultivate distinctive soft power capabilities, and facilitate differentiation amidst intense market competition [ 16 , 64 ].

Therefore, this paper argues that the impact of digital transformation on enterprise ESG performance is more pronounced in highly competitive industries. To test this hypothesis, we adopt the established research methodology [ 95 ] and employ the Herfindahl index (the sum of squared ratios of each company’s main business income to the total main business income of the industry) as a measure of industry competition intensity. The regression results are presented in columns (3) and (4) of Table 6 . The findings indicate that low competition does not yield statistically significant results, whereas high competition exhibits a significantly positive effect at a 1% level of significance. This suggests that in highly competitive environments, enterprises can achieve more substantial improvements in their ESG performance through leveraging digital technology.

Firstly, the empirical analysis results confirm the hypothesis (H1) proposed in this study. This finding aligns with existing research and further substantiates that digital transformation not only positively impacts financial performance but also serves as an internal driver for enhancing ESG performance within enterprises [ 13 , 25 , 26 ].

Furthermore, this study confirms the proposition H2. Existing literature predominantly examines the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance through the lenses of total factor productivity and dynamic capability, neglecting the role of corporate transparency in this context. On one hand, the application of digital technology brings about technological advantages that generate a "governance effect," enhancing internal governance capabilities by increasing shareholder participation in decision-making and curbing managerial discretion [ 48 ]. On the other hand, digital transformation yields a "spotlight effect" that amplifies market attention towards enterprises and facilitates greater interaction frequency of internal and external information [ 59 ], thereby promoting environmental and social investments among manufacturing firms to enhance their ESG performance. This research finding expands upon existing knowledge regarding the mechanisms linking digital transformation with enterprise ESG performance while contributing to non-economic value research within the domain of digital transformation.

This study also investigates whether the relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance is influenced by the performance expectation gap, and the empirical findings confirm the hypothesis H3b proposed in this study. The underlying reason is that during a performance expectation gap, enterprises face increased strategic risks and heightened internal and external pressures on management [ 61 , 62 ]. Pursuing strategic reforms at such times may not yield immediate turnaround results but can potentially lead to organizational difficulties. Consequently, the performance expectation gap tends to foster more conservative strategic decision-making by management, thereby limiting the extent to which digital transformation can promote ESG performance. This conclusion underscores the significance of performance feedback in understanding the intrinsic connection between digital transformation and ESG performance within enterprises while addressing existing research limitations.

In the face of medium and long-term constraints posed by the ’dual carbon’ goal, leveraging competitive advantages brought about by digital transformation to stimulate ESG practice motivation and help enterprises explore a sustainable development path with economic and social benefits has become a major concern for academia and industry. While scholars have begun exploring the impact mechanism and effect of digital transformation on enterprise ESG performance, the ’black box’ remains unopened, with impact boundaries yet to be fully revealed. Therefore, this paper empirically investigates the impact of digital transformation on ESG performance in manufacturing industries, elucidating its internal mechanisms from a company transparency perspective while revealing differences in relationships between digital transformation and ESG performance under conditions of performance expectation gaps. This study provides new theoretical references and policy implications for deep integration between digital transformation and green transformations. The findings demonstrate that: (1) Digital transformation has a significant positive impact on enterprise ESG performance.(2) Analysis of the influence mechanism reveals that company transparency partially mediates the relationship between digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance. (3) The performance expectation gap will give rise to the phenomenon of "timely stop loss" and impede the transformative impact of digitalization on the ESG performance of manufacturing enterprises.(4) Through heterogeneity analysis of the internal and external environment, it is observed that in highly competitive industries within the external environment, digital transformation exhibits a more pronounced positive influence on enterprise ESG performance. State-owned enterprises can fully leverage the enabling role of digital transformation.

Theoretical and practical contributions

The exploration of ESG practice in emerging markets holds significant theoretical significance for the advancement of the ESG field [ 96 ]. Despite China’s rapid development as an emerging economy, its research in the realm of ESG is still nascent [ 97 ]. By focusing on China as a research subject, this study not only expands the investigation into influencing factors on ESG within China but also offers insights applicable to sustainable development in other developing nations. Moreover, from a corporate transparency perspective, this study elucidates the logical framework linking digital transformation and enterprise ESG performance while broadening our understanding of how digital transformation impacts such performance. It also explores the significance of the performance expectation gap in the internal relationship between digital transformation and ESG performance, thereby addressing the limitations of existing research.

From a practical perspective, this study unveils the mechanism and impact of digital transformation on the ESG performance of enterprises, offering a novel empirical reference for effectively aligning digitization with environmental sustainability efforts in underperforming companies. Moreover, it provides fresh insights for governments to formulate incentivizing policies. Specifically, organizations need to shift their development mindset and fully recognize the long-term advantages of investing in environmental, social, and governance initiatives. Simultaneously, careful attention should be paid to potential adverse effects arising from digital transformation; thus necessitating timely adjustments in personnel allocation, organizational structure, and business processes to ensure optimal utilization of digital technologies’ enabling capabilities. Furthermore, The government should prioritize the impact of altruistic preferences [ 98 ] and develop a robust policy incentive framework encompassing capital infusion, talent cultivation, and equipment provisioning. This will help alleviate resource scarcity-induced reluctance or apprehension towards ESG investments during the process of enterprise digitization while partially sharing change-related risks.

Limitation and future research

There are certain limitations in this study. Despite employing text analysis and utilizing data from the CSMAR database to measure the extent of enterprise digital transformation, it is still unable to completely mitigate the influence of management behavior such as false disclosure and exaggeration, which may introduce some deviation between the measurement indicators and the actual scenario. Future research could explore alternative measurement methods to minimize potential errors. Furthermore, due to data constraints, this study does not investigate the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on enterprises’ ESG practices; Therefore, future studies can explore disparities in impact before and after the outbreak. Lastly, it is important to note that our sample only encompasses Chinese market enterprises with ESG rating agency coverage and does not encompass emerging markets comprehensively. Subsequent research could concentrate on discerning differences between digital transformation and ESG performance in developed versus developing countries.

Supporting information

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0302029.s001

Acknowledgments

We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the anonymous reviewers, editor, and everyone who contributed to the writing of this paper.

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Empowerment: An emerging mental health technology

  • Published: September 1987
  • Volume 8 , pages 71–94, ( 1987 )

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empowerment technology research paper

  • Carolyn Swift &
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This paper addresses the theory and practice of empowerment as an emerging mental health technology, as well as its relationship to prevention. The paper begins with a discussion of the increasing interest in empowerment by preventionists. Definitional issues are then considered; in this context the disparate philosophical world views of empowerment and prevention are outlined. Next, attention is directed to emprowerment in practice. This section is followed by a discussion of possible roles for professionals in empowerment activities. The paper ends with a note of caution to mental health professionals who plan to use the emerging technology of empowerment.

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Swift, C., Levin, G. Empowerment: An emerging mental health technology. J Primary Prevent 8 , 71–94 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01695019

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Subject Description: This course focuses on the application of ideas and methods of the social sciences to understand, investigate, and examine challenges of contemporary community life. It focuses on community-action initiatives such as community engagement, solidarity, and citizenship as guided by the core values of human rights, social justice, empowerment and advocacy, gender equality, and participatory development. It aims at enhancing students' sense of shared identity and willingness to contribute to the pursuit of the common good of the community. It enables students to integrate applied social sciences into community-action initiatives.

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Technology as the key to women’s empowerment: a scoping review

April mackey.

University of Saskatchewan, 100-4400 4th Ave, Regina, SK S4T 0H8 Canada

Pammla Petrucka

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The databases used in the study were all open access and included Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete. The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) have empowered people to communicate and network at a global scale. However, there is lack of in-depth understanding of the use of ICTs for women's empowerment. This study examines how the concept empowerment is defined, utilized and measured in research studies, the existing evidence on the use of ICTs for women’s empowerment and the gaps in knowledge at the global level.

The authors’ conducted a scoping review using the Arksey and O’Malley methodology. The search identified papers from ten databases, including Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete over the period of 2012–2018. Search criteria included articles that focused on women’s empowerment and utilized technologies as interventions. Out of a total of 4481 articles that were initially identified, 51 were included.

Technology played a variety of roles in supporting the development of women’s capacities and resources. Results revealed the use of ICT interventions in the overarching areas of outreach (e.g., health promotion), education (e.g., health literacy opportunities), lifestyle (e.g., peer coaching and planning), prevention (e.g., screening opportunities), health challenges (e.g., intimate partner violence apps), and perceptions of barriers (i.e., uptake, utilization and ubiquity to ICTs for women). Despite the positive use of technology to support women in their daily lives, there was a lack of consensus regarding the definition and use of the term empowerment. The concept of empowerment was also inconsistently and poorly measured in individual studies making it difficult to determine if it was achieved.

This scoping review provides a comprehensive review of current and emerging efforts to use ICTs to empower women. The findings suggest a need for collaborative efforts between researchers, program implementers and policy makers as well as the various communities of women to address the persistent gender disparities with respect to ICTs.

The term women’s empowerment emerged in the 1970s in response to the need for social justice and gender equality [ 1 , 2 ]. As the term evolved in the 1990s, it was increasingly applied to women who were oppressed and lacking the freedom of choice and action to shape their lives, as well as to discuss women’s participation across multiple sectors in society. More recently it has been used as an outcome and a goal to be achieved is to balance the scales of gender equality and equity. For this research, the definition used regarding women’s empowerment is a process by which women who have experienced oppression acquire the ability to make autonomous and strategic life choices based on their personal priorities. Empowerment is achieved when a woman has the resources, agency, and capabilities to execute decisions on matters of importance [ 3 , 4 ].

Globally women are more likely to experience less favourable social determinants of health (such as over-representation of women in low-paying, insecure employment; lower education and literacy levels amongst rural and immigrant women) than their male counterparts. Women carry the bulk of responsibility for raising children and meeting household obligations, which, globally, contribute to this continued disadvantage [ 5 – 7 ]. Due to a lack of affordable and quality daycare, women are over-represented in part-time work force, and often remain within low-income bracket [ 5 – 8 ]. Gender, as a social determinant of health, is influenced by the “gendered” norms of the roles, personality traits, attitudes, relative power, and influence that society ascribes to it [ 9 , 10 ]. The transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 saw the emergence of Target 5 which aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (p. 20) [ 11 ]. A major SDG indicator supporting attainment of women’s empowerment is “enhancing the use of enabling technology by increasing the proportion of women and girls who have access” (p. 20) [ 11 ].

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have catalyzed communication and networking between and among people on a global scale. However, as ICTs have become ubiquitous and grown in both type and access, a digital divide has emerged. This divide parallels gaps in social contexts, such as income and education, as those who use and benefit from access to technologies often have other resources more readily available [ 12 ]. This divide widens the inequity and inequality gaps based on gender, age, disability, or socioeconomic status [ 13 , 14 ].

Women’s empowerment and ICTs have been the subject of global goals, discussions, and debates for many decades [ 15 , 16 ]. Global discussions, such as the 1995 World Conference on Women: Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, deliberated and advocated for the inclusion of women in the information society in order to fully achieve women’s empowerment in connection with ICT. In 2013, 200 million more men had access to the internet than women [ 17 ]. Women use ICTs much less frequently and intensely than men [ 18 – 21 ] In 2016, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) stated that the percentage of women gaining access to ICT is actually decreasing—with women utilizing ICTs 11% less than men in 2013 and 12% less than men in 2016 [ 19 ]. The most recent 2018 report indicated that the overall proportion of internet usage for women was 12% lower than men [ 19 ].

The extant evidence lacks sufficient depth and detail as to exactly how ICTs are being used by women and why they use it less frequently. An important aspect of empowerment in the context of ICTs is gaining a clearer picture as to the type of technologies and technological interventions being used by women. Many authors agree that improved access to ICTs can assist in providing women with employment resources and opportunities that could narrow the gender wage gap, assist in making education and health information more accessible, contribute to the end of violence against women, and lead to women’s empowerment and leadership [ 15 , 22 – 24 ].

The objectives of this research were to: determine how the concept of empowerment is defined, utilized, and measured in research studies; explore existing evidence regarding the use of ICTs as interventions towards achieving women’s empowerment; and explore the gaps in knowledge and research on this topic from an individual, community, and global perspective.

This research involved a scoping review, which is methodologically similar to a systematic review, to provide a rigourous synthesis of existing evidence [ 25 , 26 ] For the purpose of this study, the scoping review framework used was described by Arksey and O’Malley [ 27 ] as a five-step process with an optional sixth step. These steps include: (1) identifying the research question, as the starting point to guide the search strategy; (2) identifying relevant studies, which involved the development of a comprehensive search strategy to ensure accurate and complete results; (3) selecting studies, which involved developing a-priori inclusion and exclusion criteria that were revised throughout the review process, as familiarity with the evidence increased; (4) charting the data, which involved charting and sorting key material from the results into themes and trends; (5) collating, summarizing, and reporting the results, which involved presenting the results as a narrative; and (6) consulting with relevant stakeholders, which is contingent upon time and resource considerations. For the purposes of this research, the sixth step was not performed.

Review protocol, team, and management

To ensure transparency, rigour, reproducibility, and consistency, protocols were developed prior to the start of the research, for the inclusion criteria, search strategy, and data characterization. This helped to ensure an unbiased approach to the search protocol and to enhance rigour [ 27 ]. These are available upon request. The scoping review was conducted by a team of individuals with multi-disciplinary capabilities in nursing, knowledge synthesis methodologies, and ICTs. The primary reviewers included the lead and co-authors, as well as one research assistant. In addition, a University librarian was consulted throughout the search term selection process to ensure completeness and accuracy of search terms as well as a comprehensive and complete search strategy.

Any and all potentially relevant citations identified throughout all stages were imported into EndNote™, a reference management software, where duplicates were removed by the program and then double checked, and manually removed by the lead author; the list of citations was then imported into a web-based electronic systematic review management platform, DistillerSR™. The screening for article relevance, up to the data extraction stages, were conducted using this software. Two reviewers (i.e., lead author and research assistant) were involved throughout the selection and analysis process to ensure consistency, adherence to the inclusion/exclusion criteria, relevance to the research question, as well as the categorization of data into themes and patterns. As part of this process, all articles were screened by the lead author and research assistant. Any discrepancies were brought forward to the co-author who made an independent decision whether to include or exclude the article.

Review intent and scope

This was part of a broader study aimed at addressing the following question: What is the global impact of ICTs on women’s empowerment? The current review aimed to examine the concept of empowerment, while exploring the evidence on ICTs as interventions for achieving women’s empowerment at the individual, community, and global levels.

Search strategy

The authors ensured identification of relevant and suitable publications by creating a search strategy protocol prior to retrieving evidence from a variety of sources. As per Arksey and O'Malley [ 27 ], the following avenues were reviewed as part of the search strategy: searching relevant electronic databases, reviewing reference lists of pertinent articles to identify additional sources, and manually searching key journals.

To ensure the search was comprehensive, the following databases, available through the University of Saskatchewan library, were searched on November 30, 2016 and updated on January 1, 2018: Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete. The COCHRANE Library was also searched for any relevant trials in the trial registry. Limits placed on the search included: English only, no book reviews, publications dated 2012–2017, and the protocol was pretested in Scopus and Soc Index using select key words including “women” and “empowerment” and “technology.” An illustration of the search term strategy is presented in Table ​ Table1 1 .

Search Term Strategy

Women Search TermsICT Search TermsEmpowerment Search Terms
*searched with OR“AND”*searched with OR“ AND”*searched with OR
Wom?nTechnolog*Empower*
Female*Information technolog*Disempower*
Girl*"information communications technolog*"Barrier*
Maternal"ICTs"Enable*
"social media"Self concept
mobileSelf efficacy
handheldCapacit*
telehealthEmancipat*
computer
Smartphone
Digital
Internet
Telecommunication*
"world wide web"
Laptop
ICT4D
“web-based”
Iphone
Ipad

*At end of word = truncation, any number of letters (e.g. capacit* will find capacity or capacities); ? at end of beginning of word is used to represent one or more other characters in a search term (e.g. wom?n will find women or woman)

Limits included: 2012–2017, English language, no books/book reviews

Search terms were drawn from the research question, as well as from lengthy discussions with the university librarian and expanded upon based on a cursory search of two databases. To determine the range and breadth of key terms, an initial limited search of two databases was conducted yielding several papers. These databases were determined in consultation with the university librarian and included Scopus and Gender Studies. These papers were then analyzed for similar keywords, definitions, analogies, and index terms that were relevant synonyms to the initial search words [ 28 , 29 ]. These additional terms were added to a master list that informed the final search strategy. Specifically, for the term empowerment, keywords were chosen that could provide results that included a lack of empowerment as well, thus the inclusion of “barrier” and “disempower”. The other search terms came directly from key articles and databases and were demonstrated to be the most common variations on the term “empower”. An additional term that was used interchangeably with “empower” was “agency”, however, as this term is used more frequently in conjunction with organizations and not empowerment, it was removed from the search term list.

The ability of the electronic database search to identify all relevant primary research was verified by hand searching the reference lists of eight key peer reviewed articles and nine key electronic journals that were flagged through the initial test search as well as the main search. The journals were chosen based on their relevance to the research question as well as their scholarly nature. The initial three identified journals were: Community Informatics , Gender and Development, and Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Subsequent journals were identified and selected for a hand-search once the initial search was completed. These were : Gender, Technology & Development , Computers in Human Behaviour , American Journal of Health Behaviour , American Journal of Public Health , and Women’s Health Issues . These journals were then reviewed for additional articles potentially not identified through the database search; this included entering the general search into journal databases.

Additional grey literature was identified by hand-searching the websites of the Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library Journals and Conference Proceedings, the UN Women, Status of Women Canada, the United Nations Development Program, the International Center for the Research of Women, the Girls Action Foundation, the Information and Communications Technology Council, the ITU, and the International Development Research Center for primary research reports, guidelines, situation reports, and referenced publications that were not already included.

Study selection: relevance screening and inclusion criteria

The focus of the study selection was locating published and unpublished academic articles, which may have any type of study design, including qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods. The initial pool of results included a total of 4481 citations. An initial set of inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed a-priori to screen abstracts and titles of citations which were refined during each review of the pool of articles. Research articles were initially considered relevant if they included women’s empowerment and/or information and communication technology concepts in the title or abstract of the publication. Synonyms for these concepts were created in consultation with the librarian to ensure a robust search strategy for maximum location and inclusion of studies. Given the evolving nature of ICTs and their role in interventions, the authors wanted the articles to reflect a recent knowledge base, therefore the timeframe of 2012–2016 was chosen, which was later expanded to December 31, 2017 as the review progressed. The results were also filtered to include English only content.

First screen: inclusion criteria

The inclusion criteria created for the first level of study selection were driven by the review topics, specifically, women, empowerment, and ICTs. According to the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) (2015), the inclusion criteria should be based on three themes, also known by the acronym of PCC: (a) participant description, (b) concept, which is likened to the phenomena of interest, and (c) context. The inclusion criteria used in the first level of selection were country of publication, date of publication (2012–2017), and the use of both of the following concepts in the title or abstract of the publication: women’s empowerment and/or information and communication technology. At this stage, the lead author looked for the presence of the key words in the title and/or abstract. The use of these keywords as inclusion criteria was designed to be intentionally broad to provide a sense of what publications linked the two concepts (i.e., women's empowerment and ICTs).

First screen: study selection

On first review, the initial pool of articles was subjected to a staged process to ensure studies were selected that were relevant to the research question and met the inclusion criteria. Articles were first excluded based on duplication within the initial search results. This exclusion was conducted using the search tools feature within the electronic database, but also within the reference management program Endnote™ and then manually by the lead author. The inclusion criteria were applied to the title and abstract of the publication. Any title or abstract that did not meet the inclusion criteria was removed from further review and consideration. All articles excluded by the criteria were sent to the research assistant who confirmed the exclusion. Any disagreements or contradictions between the primary author and the research assistant were thoroughly discussed, with both parties having to agree to the inclusion before the publication could be added back into the pool of articles to move on to the next stage. Additionally, if an article could not be excluded based solely on the title or the abstract, the full article was reviewed for relevance to the research question and inclusion criteria. These latter two points did not prove to be an issue as there were no disagreements.

Second screen

The remaining pool of articles was then reviewed a second time by applying a second level of inclusion criteria to the title as well as the abstract. It is common and encouraged as part of the scoping review process to generate increased cumulative familiarity with how concepts are presented within the evidence. This, in turn, informed the decisions that were made regarding the inclusion or exclusion criteria in the subsequent stage. Much of the articles after the first level of elimination included technology as a passive aspect of the study and not one that women actively participated in. It was important for the authors that the technological aspect of each study be an intervention that women could engage in towards building self-efficacy and capacity. This informs current gaps within the evidence that speak to how women are using technologies to support their empowerment. As such, this set of inclusion criteria focused on technology as an intervention and women as active participants in the study instead of just the word “women” found throughout the first set of criteria.

Final screen

For the final review of the full text articles, based on the content and findings in the scoping review process, an additional criterion was included. The authors wanted to explore how the social determinants of health informed and supported the concepts of women, empowerment, and ICTs. At this stage, it was noted which social determinants of health, if any, were present in each article. The list of social determinants based on the Government of Canada (2019) criterion was utilized as a reference for this portion of the process, such as employment and working conditions; income and social status; social supports and coping skills. The remaining 59 articles all had social determinants of health. A subsequent review resulted in 14 of the 59 articles being eliminated from consideration as they did not meet the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Rather than focus on a range of these determinants, the authors decided to include all 45 articles and to then review the implications of this finding in the analysis (Fig.  1 ).

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Object name is 12905_2021_1225_Fig1_HTML.jpg

PRISMA Flow for Screening Process

Re-run searches

Due to the extended time to conduct the review, the authors included re-run searches for each database up to January 1, 2018. A total of 573 articles were found in all 10 of the main electronic databases. Using the inclusion and exclusion criteria previously described all but six articles were eliminated through the first and second stages in the review process. The final total number of articles included in the analysis was 51.

Study characteristics, extraction, and charting

The final step in the Arksey and O’Malley’s [ 27 ] scoping review framework was to collate and summarize the results for presentation and discussion. Each selected article was summarized in a customized data characterization utility form to guide data extraction. The goal of this step was to determine and chart factors to be extracted from each article to help answer the research question [ 26 , 27 , 30 ]. The charting of data was an iterative and exploratory process in which the data charts were continuously updated to ensure completeness and accuracy [ 26 , 30 ]. Data extracted from the charts included year of publication, country of study, implications for policy and practice, types of ICT interventions, demographics, empowerment (definition, as a design consideration, and measures), and social determinants of health (presence and description within in the study). All data were then analyzed using thematic analysis and the main ideas refined over several iterations. The data were then mapped using tabular and visual presentations of the main conceptual categories followed by a narrative summary describing how the results related to the research question and objectives.

Demographics and study characteristics

The geographic range of the included evidence was global; however, 41.1% (21/51) described research conducted in the USA. Seven studies were conducted in India, three in Australia, three in Sweden, and two in Canada. One study was conducted in each of the following countries: Finland, Ghana, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and United Kingdom.

Collation and comparison of demographics was difficult due to a lack of consistency in reporting. However, all articles described the demographics of women who were the primary focus of the study. Seventy eight percent of the articles (40/51) reported on some or all of the descriptive study characteristics. The age of participants was frequently reported although there were inconsistent age groupings across the studies. Some articles only reported the mean age of participants, while others provided only an age range. The lowest mean age reported was 24 years while the highest was 59.6 years; the categories ranged from less than 16 years to 64 years and older. It is difficult to compare these age ranges as the categories varied in the included articles, and it was unclear as to whether age was simply a descriptive statistic designed to describe the sample or whether it was reflected upon consistently in terms of the overall implications to the study.

Missing from the studies were the perspectives and participation of women who could not access, afford, and/or purchase an ICT device as well as effectively and fully utilize it to support their empowerment. Exclusion criteria used in the individual 51 studies illustrate that women not already owning a mobile device, computer, or tablet were eliminated from participating in the research.

Empowerment definition

In the included studies, the concept of empowerment was used incongruously with terms like self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth, sometimes by the same author in the same study, which further limited our ability to achieve a uniform definition for the purposes of this research. Less than one quarter (12/51) of the studies used the term “empower(ment)” in their definition of the concept of interest. These studies defined empowerment as a process but with different foci: as individuals having choice or control over their decisions [ 31 – 38 ], as being multi-dimensional and influencing a variety of areas [ 34 , 37 , 39 , 40 ] or with a focus on building individuals’ capacities, including internal and external resources [ 39 – 42 ].

The remaining studies described empowerment in a more indirect way, never including the term “empower” or “disempower.” Instead, the term empowerment was described in synonymous terms, for instance, half (28/51) described the concept of empowerment as the process of enabling a sense of self-efficacy or self-worth in the ability to overcome barriers to resources, as well as the barriers to decision-making control [ 43 – 70 ]. One fifth (11/51) described empowerment as the process enabling a sense of self-efficacy or self-worth in the ability to overcome barriers to control over resources [ 71 – 81 ].

Measures of empowerment

All studies considered the concept of empowerment in their design; 80% (41/51) of the articles considered empowerment as a primary outcome of the study. No measures of empowerment were specifically cited in any of the articles, beyond the measures of the behaviour being studied. Several studies included various measures of self-efficacy (i.e., childbirth [ 74 ], physical activity [ 56 , 67 , 71 , 74 , 80 , 81 ], intimate partner violence [ 72 ], caregiving [ 75 ], barrier [ 55 , 56 ], health [ 78 ], and chronic disease management [ 77 ]). The authors of the articles did not compare the different types of self-efficacy scales for validity of empowerment. The diversity of the scales illustrates a focus on improving efficacy of individual behaviors rather than the holistic empowerment of women.

ICT interventions to support women’s capacity and tools

The articles described a range of supportive ICT interventions, though with inconsistent and overlapping classification. The specific types of interventions covered in the 51 articles included web-based devices (17), the internet (19), particular websites (3), blogs (1), text messaging (4), telemedicine (1), video (1), apps (5), social media (2), computers (6), email (1) and Fitbit™ (1). Our categorization of ICTs focused on how the specific interventions were utilized in the day to day lives of women and were obtained from a thematic analysis of the types of ICTs used by women in the studies. The themes included (1) Outreach; (2) Education; (3) Lifestyle (4) Health Challenges; (5) Prevention; and (6) Perception of Barriers.

Ten of the 51 articles reviewed described supportive ICT interventions as a means of outreach or connecting with clients in the community. Common themes in this section included supporting women where they are at in the community, in terms of their social position, to enhance positive health behaviours with technological assistance, as well as overall enhanced accessibility to ICTs. This was accomplished through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy using computers [ 46 ], and web-based decision aid for understanding fetal anomalies [ 47 ]. Educational text messages were sent to encourage breastfeeding [ 79 ], and general health promotion interventions were delivered as well [ 43 , 44 , 56 , 65 , 73 , 75 , 80 ].

Six articles described supportive ICT interventions that delivered various health information, through smartphones or other web-based devices. These included Facebook™ virtual learning systems [ 34 ], psychoeducation for breast cancer patients [ 35 ], as well as interactive voice response as a tool for improving access to healthcare in remote areas [ 59 ]. Other interventions included English language programs [ 70 ], antenatal perineal massage support groups [ 76 ], as well as support for enhancing doctor-patient relationships. [ 64 ].

Twelve articles described supportive ICT interventions that focused on behavioural outcomes related to general lifestyle areas, using web-based devices. Commonly, the interventions provided some form of external support for women to improve their overall way of being healthy. These included improving nutrition knowledge and behaviours [ 67 , 69 ], promoting healthy food planning, shopping, and eating behaviours [ 54 ], interventions for weight loss behaviours, [ 45 ] and engagement with physical activity coaching [ 55 , 71 , 74 ]. Many of the interventions focused on social networks [ 9 , 48 ], for example, peer support for building social capital [ 52 ], and promoting social behaviours through an iPad book club [ 81 ].

Health challenges

Eleven articles described ICT interventions that focused on using web-based devices to address specific health challenges. The health challenges largely focusing on ways to enhance maintenance of women’s health, for example, self-paced education programs for those who experience intimate partner, as well as dating violence [ 33 , 41 , 72 ], and educational training to enhance understanding and management of chronic illness [ 77 ]. The interventions addressing health challenges were concentrated on those that affect women only, for example educational training for patients with breast cancer [ 38 , 61 ], health modules for those with breast cancer [ 78 ] and stress incontinence [ 63 ] and advanced care planning for women with ovarian cancer [ 49 ].

A few articles (3/51) described ICT interventions that focused on preventing specific health challenges using web-based devices. One intervention focused on the prevention of sexual and reproductive illness using education information [ 57 ]. Another encouraged vaccination behaviors and immunization with educational information [ 58 ] as well as the prevention of pre-eclampsia in rural developing countries using diagnostic tools [ 51 ]. One study focused on utilizing mobile phones to manage money transfers to support transport of women with fistula to urban hospitals [ 60 ] and another examined electronic health records to improve breast cancer screening [ 53 ].

Perceptions of barriers

Nine articles described ICT interventions that focused on the perception of barriers to ICTs that assist women in advancing their understanding and use of ICTs. These studies focused on the perceived barriers and understanding of the role of mobile phones, [ 42 , 66 ] the awareness of gender-based barriers in telemedicine [ 68 ], the development of women through mobile phones [ 32 , 40 ], as well as the connection with women in the community apps [ 50 ].

Concept of empowerment

Empowerment is a multi-dimensional and contextual concept that is internal by nature, varies in meaning, and reflects how women self-ascribe it to themselves. From the outset of the review, search terms had to include words beyond simply “empower[ment]” as much of the initial searching revealed synonyms including self-efficacy, self-worth, self-concept, and/or capacity. This inconsistency in the use of the term empowerment yields a lack of consensus on how empowerment is understood which impacts how research studies and interventions are structured and delivered to ensure maximum effectiveness and generalizability. While none of the studies included in the review indicated the broader negative outcomes related to the use of ICT, the literature supports a flip side to using technology to empower women. For example, technological advances are disproportionately accompanied by female-directed cyber abuse [ 82 , 83 ].

Evidence that women of poor socio-economic status are being left out of research studies and programs that aim to support women’s empowerment, highlights that targeted access and funding for at risk populations (such as sub-populations of women) are essential considerations in policy and program development across individual, community, and global contexts. This also reflects biases in terms of the population sub-groups in research studies that aim to advance empowerment. Opportunities exist for further evaluation of how empowerment is being measured and used in conjunction with ICTs, as well as which frameworks are being used to guide research in this area. The lack of specific measures of empowerment reflects a barrier, not only regarding how strategies for empowerment are understood and implemented, but how researchers know whether empowerment has been achieved. The finding underscores a need for a standardized tool for measuring the level of women’s empowerment.

ICTs to improve empowerment

Empowerment through ICTs has the potential to cross multiple sectors, both private and public. The complexity of empowerment and ICTs, as they relate to the root issues of inequities, suggests the need for collaborative, multi-sectoral involvement. These partnerships consider the contextual factors that act as facilitators and barriers for women in all types of communities. Interagency partnerships are uniquely suited to develop interventions aimed at enabling women to make better use of ICTs. These interventions should include information on access to education, facilities for education regarding entrepreneurship, employment opportunities, and health and other government health resources. Governments partnering with private telecommunication agencies through subsidization could provide discounted or refurbished devices for women who are deemed disadvantaged. Funding may also benefit those who experience difficulty in obtaining mobile devices as well as in accessing interventions aimed at enhancing the use of ICT. For example, funding is needed to support the cost of accessing services, low-cost devices, or the provision of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards. Alternatively, governments should support and encourage private mobile operators through tax exemptions and other benefits to facilitate better mobile services and infrastructure in rural, remote, and urban areas. Providing accessible computer sites within communities or in schools is another way to bridge the gap in access to and use of ICT. These strategies not only help in improving the overall status of girls and women but also influence overall empowerment and development of the community.

Though ICT is not the only factor that can support women’s empowerment through capacity building, women who do not have access to or who cannot afford ICTs, are potentially disempowered due to a lack of voice and participation within the information sphere. Exclusion of such women from research limits the measurement of the true impact of ICTs on empowerment and generalizability of findings. Continued research regarding empowerment involving more advantaged sub-groups of women does not address the inherent issues of oppression of women within society and further disempowers those under-represented groups. Local policies (such as affordable internet as a basic need; basic digital literacy education embedded in local curricula) have the greatest potential of improving the uptake of ICTs, as this process occurs initially at the individual level.

Individual, community, and global knowledge

Local and national governments need to invest in information gathering tools that inquire how and why women are using technology to support their lives and families. Equally important is the inquiry of women’s perceptions regarding how they prefer to use ICTs to improve their lives or the barriers they experience in the process. A global survey undertaken by the UN Statistics Division in 2011 indicated that only 30 percent of countries regularly produce sex-disaggregated statistics (such as male:female access to ICT; digital literacy by gender) and existing data collection approaches do not incorporate qualitative components that highlight the voices of women [ 84 ].

Future data should be translated into gender sensitive policies that support equal access and use of ICTs. The development and implementation of such policies should involve representation of women from all socio-economic backgrounds and ages to ensure maximum impact. Examples include policies that allow women to effectively access and participate in ICTs within society, the delivery of ICTs at a reasonable cost for all, as well as policies that regulate the cost and provision of services linked to ICTs such as availability of cell phone, easily accessible WiFi sites, and cost-effective internet plans.

Limitations

While scoping reviews examine the breadth of evidence available on a topic, they do not factor in the depth or quality of that evidence [ 25 – 27 , 30 ]. Some authors have argued that scoping reviews should include an assessment of quality; however, Armstrong et al. [ 25 ] contend that this decision should depend on the resources available for the review as well as the purpose of the scoping review itself. The quantity of data that is generated in a scoping review can be significant and so it is important to find a balance between providing an overview of all types of evidence found and providing detailed data and assessment of a smaller number of studies [ 25 ]. Scoping studies also lack a thorough evaluation of the quality of results, instead producing a narrative account of all available evidence [ 26 , 27 ]. This approach serves to ensure that all resulting evidence is included in the review and does not limit the end number of articles, as in a systematic review.

Conclusions

The diversity of technological interventions utilized to support empowerment is infinite and there is no limit to how ICTs can be implemented in daily lives. This study is novel and essential as it comprehensively describes efforts to use ICTs to empower women, and the imperative for collaborations between researchers, program implementers and policy makers to address the persistent gender disparities in the access to and use of technologies. This research provides a foundation for future research on the concept of empowerment with ICTs in critical areas of outreach, education, lifestyle, health challenge, prevention, and perception of barriers. Outreach was linked to positive health behaviours such as health promotion and decision-making applications. Education interventions varied from learning systems to health relationships for knowledge sharing. Lifestyle ICT interventions were related to external supports, often peer based, for improving healthful choices such as coaching and planning tools. Health challenges and prevention were relevant to specific challenges (e.g., intimate partner violence; chronic diseases) and health literacy issues (e.g., vaccine awareness; screening programs), respectively. The final theme of perceptions of barriers reflected experiences by participants respecting uptake, utilization, and ubiquity of ICTs. Each of these areas is well situated for future intervention research and each area brings focal points and imperatives to this emerging research agenda.

Acknowledgements

Not applicable.

Abbreviations

SDGSustainable Development Goals
ICTInformation and communication technology
ICTsInformation and communications technologies
WHOWorld Health Organization
UNUnited Nations
ITUInternational Telecommunication Union
GPSGlobal Positioning System
SIMSubscriber Identity Module

Authors’ contributions

AM was involved in the conceptualization, analysis, and writing of the first draft of the manuscript, as well as all edits. PP assisted in analyzing and interpreting the data and was a major contributor in writing the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Availability of data and materials

Ethics approval and consent to participate.

Approval from the University of Saskatchewan Behavioural Research Ethics Board was waived for this study as the information retrieved was publicly available.

Consent for publication

Competing interests.

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Technology as the key to women's empowerment: a scoping review

Affiliations.

  • 1 University of Saskatchewan, 100-4400 4th Ave, Regina, SK, S4T 0H8, Canada. [email protected].
  • 2 University of Saskatchewan, 100-4400 4th Ave, Regina, SK, S4T 0H8, Canada.
  • PMID: 33622306
  • PMCID: PMC7903800
  • DOI: 10.1186/s12905-021-01225-4

Background: Information and communications technologies (ICTs) have empowered people to communicate and network at a global scale. However, there is lack of in-depth understanding of the use of ICTs for women's empowerment. This study examines how the concept empowerment is defined, utilized and measured in research studies, the existing evidence on the use of ICTs for women's empowerment and the gaps in knowledge at the global level.

Methods: The authors' conducted a scoping review using the Arksey and O'Malley methodology. The search identified papers from ten databases, including Scopus, Embase, ABI Inform, Soc Index, Sociological Abstracts, Gender Studies, Springer Link, PsychInfo, Science Direct, and Academic Search Complete over the period of 2012-2018. Search criteria included articles that focused on women's empowerment and utilized technologies as interventions. Out of a total of 4481 articles that were initially identified, 51 were included.

Results: Technology played a variety of roles in supporting the development of women's capacities and resources. Results revealed the use of ICT interventions in the overarching areas of outreach (e.g., health promotion), education (e.g., health literacy opportunities), lifestyle (e.g., peer coaching and planning), prevention (e.g., screening opportunities), health challenges (e.g., intimate partner violence apps), and perceptions of barriers (i.e., uptake, utilization and ubiquity to ICTs for women). Despite the positive use of technology to support women in their daily lives, there was a lack of consensus regarding the definition and use of the term empowerment. The concept of empowerment was also inconsistently and poorly measured in individual studies making it difficult to determine if it was achieved.

Conclusion: This scoping review provides a comprehensive review of current and emerging efforts to use ICTs to empower women. The findings suggest a need for collaborative efforts between researchers, program implementers and policy makers as well as the various communities of women to address the persistent gender disparities with respect to ICTs.

Keywords: Impact; Information and communications technology; Scoping review; Women empowerment.

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Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

PRISMA Flow for Screening Process

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How to increase the rate of plastics recycling

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While recycling systems and bottle deposits have become increasingly widespread in the U.S., actual rates of recycling are “abysmal,” according to a team of MIT researchers who studied the rates for recycling of PET, the plastic commonly used in beverage bottles. However, their findings suggest some ways to change this.

The present rate of recycling for PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, bottles nationwide is about 24 percent and has remained stagnant for a decade, the researchers say. But their study indicates that with a nationwide bottle deposit program, the rates could increase to 82 percent, with nearly two-thirds of all PET bottles being recycled into new bottles, at a net cost of just a penny a bottle when demand is robust. At the same time, they say, policies would be needed to ensure a sufficient demand for the recycled material.

The findings are being published today in the Journal of Industrial Ecology , in a paper by MIT professor of materials science and engineering Elsa Olivetti, graduate students Basuhi Ravi and Karan Bhuwalka, and research scientist Richard Roth.

The team looked at PET bottle collection and recycling rates in different states as well as other nations with and without bottle deposit policies, and with or without curbside recycling programs, as well as the inputs and outputs of various recycling companies and methods. The researchers say this study is the first to look in detail at the interplay between public policies and the end-to-end realities of the packaging production and recycling market.

They found that bottle deposit programs are highly effective in the areas where they are in place, but at present there is not nearly enough collection of used bottles to meet the targets set by the packaging industry. Their analysis suggests that a uniform nationwide bottle deposit policy could achieve the levels of recycling that have been mandated by proposed legislation and corporate commitments.

The recycling of PET is highly successful in terms of quality, with new products made from all-recycled material virtually matching the qualities of virgin material. And brands have shown that new bottles can be safely made with 100 percent postconsumer waste. But the team found that collection of the material is a crucial bottleneck that leaves processing plants unable to meet their needs. However, with the right policies in place, “one can be optimistic,” says Olivetti, who is the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering and the associate dean of the School of Engineering.

“A message that we have found in a number of cases in the recycling space is that if you do the right work to support policies that think about both the demand but also the supply,” then significant improvements are possible, she says. “You have to think about the response and the behavior of multiple actors in the system holistically to be viable,” she says. “We are optimistic, but there are many ways to be pessimistic if we’re not thinking about that in a holistic way.”

For example, the study found that it is important to consider the needs of existing municipal waste-recovery facilities. While expanded bottle deposit programs are essential to increase recycling rates and provide the feedstock to companies recycling PET into new products, the current facilities that process material from curbside recycling programs will lose revenue from PET bottles, which are a relatively high-value product compared to the other materials in the recycled waste stream. These companies would lose a source of their income if the bottles are collected through deposit programs, leaving them with only the lower-value mixed plastics.

The researchers developed economic models based on rates of collection found in the states with deposit programs, recycled-content requirements, and other policies, and used these models to extrapolate to the nation as a whole. Overall, they found that the supply needs of packaging producers could be met through a nationwide bottle deposit system with a 10-cent deposit per bottle — at a net cost of about 1 cent per bottle produced when demand is strong. This need not be a federal program, but rather one where the implementation would be left up to the individual states, Olivetti says.

Other countries have been much more successful in implementing deposit systems that result in very high participation rates. Several European countries manage to collect more than 90 percent of PET bottles for recycling, for example. But in the U.S., less than 29 percent are collected, and after losses in the recycling chain about 24 percent actually get recycled, the researchers found. Whereas 73 percent of Americans have access to curbside recycling, presently only 10 states have bottle deposit systems in place.

Yet the demand is there so far. “There is a market for this material,” says Olivetti. While bottles collected through mixed-waste collection can still be recycled to some extent, those collected through deposit systems tend to be much cleaner and require less processing, and so are more economical to recycle into new bottles, or into textiles.

To be effective, policies need to not just focus on increasing rates of recycling, but on the whole cycle of supply and demand and the different players involved, Olivetti says. Safeguards would need to be in place to protect existing recycling facilities from the lost revenues they would suffer as a result of bottle deposits, perhaps in the form of subsidies funded by fees on the bottle producers, to avoid putting these essential parts of the processing chain out of business. And other policies may be needed to ensure the continued market for the material that gets collected, including recycled content requirements and extended producer responsibility regulations, the team found.

At this stage, it’s important to focus on the specific waste streams that can most effectively be recycled, and PET, along with many metals, clearly fit that category. “When we start to think about mixed plastic streams, that’s much more challenging from an environmental perspective,” she says. “Recycling systems need to be pursuing extended producers’ responsibility, or specifically thinking about materials designed more effectively toward recycled content,” she says.

It's also important to address “what the right metrics are to design for sustainably managed materials streams,” she says. “It could be energy use, could be circularity [for example, making old bottles into new bottles], could be around waste reduction, and making sure those are all aligned. That’s another kind of policy coordination that’s needed.”

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