Digital Livelihoods For the World's Women

Digital Livelihoods For the World's Women

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Leila Chirayath Janah was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.

by Leila Chirayath Janah, founder of Samasource
Why are women so undervalued compared to men?

I've heard many explanations, ranging from culture and religion to evolutionary biology. But none seem quite as salient as this one: women are faced with a dramatic lack of access to opportunities that allow them to use their brains, rather than their bodies, to earn income.

As literacy rates rise and more women are prepared to enter the formal labor force, fewer and fewer jobs are available to them. Oh, the deplorable irony. Even worse, those women that are employed often work for poverty-level wages, in what is called "vulnerable employment."

To right this paradox, the development community must focus on educating women, but—more importantly—also connect them to jobs that tap these newly-formed skills.

Luckily, there's a new kind of work out there, and unlike manufacturing, it requires few inputs. You don’t need roads, nor telephone lines, nor brick and mortar to build this generation’s factories. All you need is a brain and a connection to the Internet. The primary input of this new digital work is human intelligence, which we now have in abundance.

Any work that can be done digitally, from labeling an image to translating a snippet of text, is now fair game. This shift is creating a rapid transformation in the types of people that can do digital work. Just as Ford’s assembly line took production into the mainstream and paved the way for the rise of the American middle class, the digital assembly lines of today allow people with basic training to plug their skills into much larger work streams that engage hundreds of people on many continents. The Internet is the new factory floor.

Samasource, the organization I founded in 2008, is getting the most out of the Web-based industry by plugging in a new kind of worker: marginalized women, youth, and refugees living in poverty. This unprecedented connection is creating a value chain that pumps much-needed capital into some of the poorest parts of the world, like Africa, South Asia, and Haiti, to help advance the social and economic opportunity of underserved women.

The income that enters the system from these jobs has a multiplier effect – by training marginalized women in digital work, we not only provide direct employment, but we also increase household spending on health and education, increase a woman’s wages substantially over her lifetime, and decrease the likelihood that she will be forced to leave her community to find work. Providing dignified work to women also reduces the chances that that they will be victims of violence, trafficking, or suffer exploitation in the workplace.
Investing in women’s livelihoods, and connecting them to digital jobs in the new economy, can pave the way for sustainable and scalable growth and development at the bottom of the pyramid. Dignified, meaningful, and lasting employment means more than mere income – it's a new identity, beyond being someone's wife or daughter.

By investing in and spreading the word about innovative, digital work that promotes women's employment, we have the power to unlock a vast and untapped pool of talent faster than ever before. The solution to gender inequality is literally at our fingertips.

We don’t have a moment to lose. The women of the world are waiting.


Leila Chirayath Janah is the founder of Samasource, an award-winning social business that connects people living in poverty to microwork — small, computer-based tasks that build skills and generate life-changing income. Janah is a frequent speaker on social entrepreneurship and technology, and her work has been profiled by CBS, CNN, NPR, the BBC, The New York Times, and The New Scientist. She serves on the board of TechSoup Global. She received a BA from Harvard in 2005.


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