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Google empowers women and girls through new Impact Challenge | Q&A with Stephanie Davis, VP of Google Southeast Asia

Written by Khamila Mulia Published on     7 mins read

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Google has a slew of initiatives to help underserved communities in Southeast Asia that are meshing with the digital economy.

The path to true gender equality is rocky. Many challenges persist today, especially in underserved communities. In fact, the Asia-Pacific region’s record on gender equality remains unsatisfactory, according to the United Nations Development Program.

In order to see women and girls reach their full potential in the digital world, Google.org, the charitable arm of its namesake, is launching the Google.org Impact Challenge for Women and Girls on March 8, International Women’s Day. Through the initiative, Google will seek nonprofits and social enterprises that have plans to create meaningful changes in their communities. The challenge’s winners will receive funding, mentorship, and technical support from Google’s staff.

“Women and girls around the world, including Southeast Asia, continue to make strides and break down barriers. But despite decades of work, the disparity between men and women continues to grow at an alarming rate due to compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stephanie Davis, vice president of Google Southeast Asia.

The tech giant has earmarked USD 25 million to fund nonprofit organizations that are working to advance women and girls’ economic empowerment.

KrASIA recently spoke to Davis to learn more about the Google.org Impact Challenge and the company’s efforts in advocating for women and girls in Southeast Asia.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for women and girls in Southeast Asia, especially economically and in education?

Stephanie Davis (SD): The tech industry in Southeast Asia still faces a challenge where women’s participation in school is systematically lower than in other industries, according to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority. For example, only 39% of tech majors in the region are women, as compared to 56% for all other fields of study. In Indonesia, although women make up 59% of all university graduates, only 35% of them are tech degrees. There is a need to bridge this gap to fully leverage the opportunities and potential that can come about from a fast-growing digital economy.

This is why we launched the Generation Google Scholarship: for women in computer science earlier this month to help aspiring students pursuing computer science degrees excel and become leaders in the field. Selected students from Southeast Asia, India, and Taiwan will receive USD 1,000 for the 2021–2022 school year.

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Kr: How can technology help women and girls in underserved communities?

SD: When a diverse group uses the internet, the online world becomes relevant and useful to more people. Many Google products have evolved to better meet the needs of new internet users globally. An example is Google Go, which enables a safe browsing experience and access to information without a history mode. This came about from our research insights on gender equity for the next billion internet users, which revealed that women’s devices are often shared or monitored.

From the Google for Philippines event two years ago, we met with a housewife named Jhoan who used YouTube to learn about recycling plastic trash and making them into crafts, which she then sold to her neighbors. This has served as a source of income for her, allowing Jhoan to gain confidence and contribute to her children’s education. We hope technology can help more women and girls in Southeast Asia—like Jhoan—to improve their livelihoods and affect change in their communities.

Kr: What does Google do to empower underserved communities in Southeast Asia?

SD: Southeast Asia is a large, diverse, and entrepreneurial region. Its people are the most engaged mobile users in the world. With a surge in digital adoption, Google has been able to help bring more people into the growing digital economy. It gives us the chance to expand access to information, skills, and opportunities through technology, deepening the progress Google has made over the years. In 2018, we embarked on an ASEAN-wide commitment to training 3 million small and medium business (SME) workers by 2022, helping them be more digital-ready. Last year, we shifted this training online, which has allowed us to train 2 million people so far.

We’re also helping to advance digital inclusion in other ways. As part of Go Digital ASEAN, Google.org is supporting The Asia Foundation and its local NGO partners in ten ASEAN countries through a USD 3.3 million grant to fund training initiatives for up to 200,000 people. We’re also committed to helping youths in the region stay safe online through ASEAN Online Safety Academy. Since November, the academy conducted monthly talks attended by over 1,200 youths and garnered over 87,000 views across the region.

The Google Impact Challenge seeks social enterprises that have plans to create meaningful changes in their communities. Courtesy of Google.org.

Kr: Please tell us more about Google.org’s involvement in Go Digital ASEAN. What were the positive outcomes? How will these be duplicated to this upcoming challenge for women and girls?

SD: Many of the beneficiaries of Google.org’s support for The Asia Foundation and its local partners include women business owners, micro-entrepreneurs, and jobseekers. As of January 2021, 22,000 people have completed their training. 64.3% of the beneficiaries identify as female and 69% have a high school degree or less.

In Indonesia, for instance, the funds were channeled towards local nonprofits that aim to empower women, especially those in the lowest socioeconomic groups. The goal is to train 10,000 women from 800 villages. So far, the program has reached more than 7,000 women.

We know that the best answers often come from those closest to the problems. Similar to the Go Digital ASEAN approach, the Google.org Impact Challenge aims to support innovative nonprofits and social enterprises that understand the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations, with Google’s resources and cash support to accelerate their impact.

Go Digital ASEAN’s training program in Vietnam in collaboration with local partner Tinh Thuong Microfinance Institution. Google.org provides a USD 3.3 million grant for The Asia Foundation and its local NGO partners for the initiative. Courtesy of Google.org.

Kr: Please tell us more about this year’s challenge. How does it work? What kind of organizations are you looking for?

SD: From March 8, we’ll be putting out an open call for organizations in Southeast Asia and around the world to apply for the Challenge. Organizations have until Saturday, April 10, 7:59 a.m. SGT, to submit their applications. Organizations are eligible to receive funding ranging from USD 300,000 to USD 2 million and grantees will be announced in late 2021. We’re looking for bold ideas from innovators who understand the needs within their local communities and countries, which could include ideas for programs addressing systemic barriers to economic equality, cultivating entrepreneurship, developing financial independence, and more.

We’ve established a 100% women-led expert panel—including Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women; Amanda Gorman, the first US National Youth Poet Laureate; and Shakira, global artist and philanthropist—to guide the grantee selection process. Together, this group of experts represent the pinnacle of global leadership and sit at the forefront of their respective fields and industries. They’ve broken down barriers and continue to pave the way for others to do the same.

Kr: What kind of technical support will you provide to the winners? How will you ensure that the initiative can help them in the long run?

SD: Google.org will evaluate the opportunities of each grantee and provide suitable and customized Google resources, including technical support. We’ll connect grantees with Google employees who volunteer their own time, or who provide pro bono services through the Google.org Fellowship for up to six months full-time. Fellows leave their day jobs at Google to work alongside the organization’s staff to build scalable solutions, forming a team to ensure that the work has a sustained and lasting impact.

We believe that when women and girls have the resources and opportunities to turn their economic potential into power, it not only changes their lives, but also strengthens the well-being of entire communities.

Kr: You’re now a leader in a global tech giant. What sort of unique challenges did you face as a woman in the tech world? How do you see the matter of diversity in Google?

SD: I’ve been very fortunate and well supported in my career, but I’ve experienced some of the things that can happen when a team or a meeting is not diverse. For example, I have been in meetings where I was the presenter, but questions from the male attendees were posed to other men sitting around the table. And I’ve been talked over or interrupted before in meetings that were more male-dominated. While these weren’t pleasant experiences, I spoke up and shared feedback with my colleagues directly, and they took it on board graciously.

I don’t think these experiences are unique, and perhaps if the roles were reversed and we were in a meeting that’s more female-dominated, similar dynamics may play out. It just points to the importance of diversity. I’m grateful we have a training in Google called “Unconscious Bias @ Work,” which has helped ensure that employees have a common understanding and language to talk about unconscious bias, and the platform to do so.

At Google, we believe in having a workplace that creates a sense of belonging for everyone, and we still have some work to do. We have a number of programs geared toward developing, progressing, and retaining women including #IAmRemarkable which empowers women and underrepresented groups to speak openly about their accomplishments, breaking modesty norms and glass ceilings. It has since helped accelerate the career progression of 185,000 women in more than 150 countries, including those in Southeast Asia.

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