How do technologies affect attitudes about gender roles and violence against women? According to new findings published in the American Journal of Public Health by Susan B. Sorenson and Lauren Ferreira Cardoso of the School of Social Policy & Practice, women with technology in the home more frequently reject wife beating as an acceptable norm.
“We imagined that access to information, access to new ways of understanding gender roles, could have a positive impact on the experience or norms around violence against women,” says Cardoso, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate and a fellow at the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. “That’s where we started.”
Cardoso and Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center and a professor of social policy, turned to data collected by the United Nations Children’s Fund. For 20 developing countries, from Barbados to Vietnam, they looked at how more than 130,000 15- to 49-year-old young girls and women considered two topics. One, is a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife if she goes out without telling him, neglects the children, argues with him, refuses to have sex, or burns the food? Secondly, does a household own information and communication technologies? To even the starting point, the researchers controlled for the wealth of each household, and the wealth and development of each country.
Analysis of the data showed that women in homes with a radio, computer, cell phone, or landline were less likely to accept justifications for wife beating. In addition, the more technologies present, the greater the chance for rejecting such justifications.
“We went in thinking that this relationship might exist,” Cardoso says. “We were surprised that it was true.”
Although previous ethnographic research has considered the link between technology and gender norms, this was the first study of such magnitude. The aim was to move beyond direct interventions—solving a problem like intimate partner violence by educating school children to treat women better, for instance—to those that were more indirect or incidental. Sorenson says technology was an obvious fit.
“The private sector is putting a lot of effort into making sure information and communication technologies are available globally,” she says. “Whether companies, policymakers who set regulations, or researchers, people just haven’t been paying attention to this.”
Sorenson and Cardoso see some obvious next steps. The first involves better understanding whether a woman whose home contains these technologies actually uses them. Another is understanding the relationship of these factors from the male perspective.
For now, the researchers say these results reinforce the need to continue prioritizing women’s contact with and ownership of technology.
“There is something about the access to information, being exposed to different ways of life,” Sorenson says, that it helps society move “toward more positive ways of men relating to women and women relating to men.”