Watch: Rural Women Online | Crises and the digital consequences

Covid 19 on top of bushfire recovery has exacerbated the isolation of many women in rural Victoria. There are vital services at risk of being denied to women if they are unable to connect to online services, from maternal care, mental health, telehealth and violence prevention to name but a few.’

- Alana Johnson AM Chair of Victorian Women’s Trust and Rural Women Online Project Director

To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Victorian Women’s Trust hosted a discussion between Alana Johnson AM (Chair of Victorian Women’s Trust and Rural Women Online Project Director); Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust); Prof. Julian Thomas (Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society); and Kathleen Lively (Consul General of the Government of the United States of America) on the impact of the digital divide on women in regional and rural areas.

Women in regional Victoria are immensely capable and deeply resilient, and make a significant contribution to rural communities on a daily basis, but the impacts of crises such as floods, drought, and the pandemic bring this leadership capacity into stronger relief. In terms of community recovery after disasters, women play a huge, often unheralded role. They are first and foremost communicators and networkers, bringing people together at a time of urgent need.

After the critical emergency response phase of a disaster, it is equally critical to attend to post-disaster rebuilding. This is likely to take several years; necessitates an informed approach to trauma and requires equipped people to assist communities through disaster recovery. This is an organic process, and as reported after the 2020 ‘black summer’ fires, requires connectors, not coordinators. This is the work women do; they rebuild families, communities and local economies. Ensuring that women have IT skills and capacity is an important dimension to any rebuild.

Watch the video (full transcript listed below) and head to the Rural Women Online website for more information. 

This presentation has been made possible by the United States Consulate General Melbourne; Bendigo Bank Community Enterprise Foundation; and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust. On behalf of the VWT, we wish to thank all Speakers, our Rural Women Online partners and, Gabrielle Connellan and Cynthia Hoof at the US Consulate, Melbourne.


Mary Crooks: Welcome to this very special International Women’s Day event at the Victoria Women’s Trust. My name is Mary Crooks. I’m the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust.

I would like to acknowledge Country. We have a very proud partnership at Victoria Women’s Trust of some 31 years now – a  close partnership with Koorie Women Mean Business. It’s a partnership where we’ve both stood together as organisations (side by side). We’ve learned from one another and it is a wonderful tribute to the partnership – and this is where the rubber hits the road, when it comes to reconciliation. So on that basis we warmly pay our respects to Indigenous Elders past and present and to acknowledge the care of the land and the waters that First Nations people have executed for well over 60,000 years.

So welcome to this event. I’d like to set the context for it. First up I think many of you might know that we’ve been running a project over the last year called Rural Women Online which has really sparked our interest in this whole issue and more.

But I think many of you would know that women in regional Australia and in regional Victoria are immensely capable and (they are) deeply resilient.

They play significant roles in their communities day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. But they especially play significant roles in the aftermath of droughts, floods and fires.

This role is often unheralded, and it’s usually unpaid – as we tend to think from the media that people who come first after the crisis are first responders (emergency workers). Sometimes we don’t necessarily look closely enough (at the response),  and if we do look carefully other ‘so-called second responders’ – usually women,  play extraordinary roles in rebuilding their communities, maintaining their families, rebuilding family and community connection.

So we started this research and our interest in Rural Women Online in large part informed by the seminal work of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII)and we will talk more, a little bit about that later. But that research suggests that there are three key points when we’re talking about digital consequences and digital learning and that’s the important question of access but also ability – women’s capacity, and affordability – those three dimensions working hand in hand.

Our Rural Women Online project in 2022 affirmed the criticality of those three factors at play which is why we’re also wanting to extend the work if we can through 2023 and beyond.

So our motivation for bringing the panel together lies in what we have been understanding and learning ourselves through the project and how we want to take this project a lot more widely into Victoria and beyond.  On the panel today and with this great title, I think of the real crises that we face, and the real digital consequences. So we’ve got in mind flood, drought, fire as the kind of environmental crises, but the implications we want to tease out today, is what happens to women and their digital capacity, their access and need for IT skills and (their) ability.

So we will talk to you a little bit about the Rural Women Online project. But we also want to set the scene with the research. We want to explore the notion of the digital divide that is shown in research and certainly in our project work. We want to establish that digital literacy is such a fundamental component now to living – and a fundamental problem for women in terms of equity if we’re not careful. And so ultimately we want to take this project and this discussion into a much stronger understanding of the kind of digital future that we should be building with women in mind.

So we have three fantastic panelists brought together for you. Today we have Kathleen Lively. Kathleen is the Consul General of the Government of the United States of America based in Melbourne.Let me just pull out a few key aspects of  Kathleen’s biography for you.

She’s a career American diplomat currently serving as Consul General here in Melbourne. She was the Minister Counsellor for Management Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya from 2019 to 2021.   She has served in Afghanistan and Japan, the UK and Poland and interestingly when I had the pleasure first of meeting Kathleen it was with delight that I found out that she had actually served as Dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Applied Information Technology and has a strong and abiding interest in applied technology. And from that point onward, Kathleen has been very keen to follow the progress of Rural Women Online.

Julian Thomas is our second panelist and I met Julian for the first time when we started this project because he was brought to us as being the driver of this all-important Australian Digital Inclusion Index research. Julian is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. He’s a Distinguished Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.

He’s written widely about digital inclusion, automation and other topics relating to computing technologies and the social aspects of communications.

His publications include the Sage Handbook to the Digital Media Economy, Measuring the digital divide – The Australian Digital inclusion Index, and Internet on the Outstation: The Digital divide and remote Aboriginal communities.

And our final panelist today is Alana Johnson AM who is also Chair of the Victoria Women’s Trust, but she has been along with me, the Project Director of Rural Women Online.

Alana is a farmer and a rural consultant. Not quite sure when she gets time to do all that! She was the Victorian Rural Woman of the Year in 2010. She was a founding member of Australian Women in Agriculture. She has worked extensively on behalf of rural women nationally and internationally.

She has served on many government and NGO boards. She’s currently the president of Voices for Indi, which was the group that worked  hard to have Kathy McGowan elected as the first independent in the state of Indi for some 100 years or so.

So you can see from those profiles that we’ve got three amazing panelists and a great platform for us to explore this question today of crises and the digital consequences.

What I’d like to do is to ask each of our panelists to just talk for a short period of time perhaps and respond to some lead questions from me and then I’d like them to build from one another into an interactive discussion. So let’s talk now first with Julian.

The research context is terribly important here in bringing facts and figures and statistics to our attention – to illustrate something that might not be totally front of mind for a lot of us. So if I could now throw to you Julian Thomas to take us through this all important context of the research that lays the foundation for understanding the digital consequences of crises, and how they might affect rural women.

Julian Thomas: Thanks, Mary. I’m really delighted to have a chance to have this conversation about what I think is a really interesting and emerging challenge. We’ve been concerned about digital inclusion, of course for a long time, but it’s only really in the last few years that we’ve realised how significant events like fires and floods and the impact of these kinds of crises are. We’re talking about how critically important digital infrastructure is in that context. But also the other things that we are interested in are digital skills, digital literacy, access, affordability, these other elements. So let me just say a little bit about the research that we do on measuring Australia’s digital divide. This is a project that we’ve been undertaking for a while with our partners at Telstra and working with colleagues at Swinburne University of Technology as well as our own institution, RMIT University as part of the ARC Centre that Mary mentioned.  Digital inclusion from our perspective does involve several dimensions. And this is what makes it a complex problem and a particular challenge in circumstances of crisis.

So, in our work, going back a while we’ve really been particularly interested in several kinds of key aspects of it. So we see all these critical dimensions, the access issue, which is really about how people are connecting, how they are communicating using the internet, the kinds of services and devices that they have. We also see affordability as a critical problem. So is how much of a person’s household income is required to get a good quality internet service, which is reliable. And of course, this is an absolutely critical issue in regional Victoria and elsewhere in regional Australia.

And the last one is also absolutely crucial. And this is the question of what we call digital ability. It’s about what people can do once they get online and their degree of confidence in doing it. So, their capacity to make the most of the digital services that they may have. (In regard to) Access, I’m going to move through  very quickly so apologies for that. But I did just want to introduce some of the relevant data that comes out of our research in relation to the situation of rural women looking at Victoria in particular – and looking in particular at the digital ability aspect. So this one dimension – the others are very important and we can say more about that in our discussion, but I thought it would be particularly important to look at (ability) because that is so critical for people maintaining communications and connections and being able to make the most of digital services in the context of crises. 

This is a map of local government areas in Victoria and it’s showing you (a score) in each of those (LGA’s)

The score that we attribute to those areas in relation to our digital inclusion index. So taking all of those three dimensions together and getting a score ‘out of’ – urban areas, that you see (have) the highest scores. There’s a very considerable distribution between the urban centre of Victoria in Melbourne and the regional centres which is where we find much lower digital inclusion scores in the aggregate. So we see particularly low scores in that East Gippsland area in Loddon in the Loddon Valley to name a few.

That’s the Victorian situation. So, if we look at it, and start to introduce a sort of a gender lens to this, you can see also that there are significant differences not just between the results that we get for our analysis for greater Melbourne and the rest of the state but also between men and women.  You can see here that there’s a significant gap – remembering that this is the average for Australia as a whole in relation to digital ability. So here, if we just look at digital ability (score) is 64 – you can see Melbourne has high scores relative to the national average, but there is a very substantial difference between what we see in Melbourne (and then) what we see in the rest of the state and there’s also a very substantial difference between the scores we see for women and those for men. This is to break down this category of digital ability a little bit. And because we actually look at a whole range of skills.

From what we call Basic Skills which are really talking about operating a device and doing basic things online to more advanced skills, which include doing things like customising a device and you know, setting connections, adjusting privacy settings for example to control what sort of data that people are sharing (and) working with cloud-based documents. Those things are the advanced skills, information navigation particularly important, of course in emergency situations that surround searching and navigating verifying what information might be trustworthy so you can see here. These are the sorts of differences that appear when we look across all the skills, very substantial differences between Melbourne and the rest of the state and then when you look at this in relation to women’s skills (you can also) look at education. You can see that there are really significant gaps.

If you look at those differences in terms of the education intersect – importantly with those differences that we see across the age distribution, you can see there that the gap in digital ability, especially when you move beyond those basic skills become significantly more pronounced during midlife and then they can continue to widen in women who are 75 years and older. One of the things I think that is really worth noting here is the point about how those digital skills, especially as basic skills do decline quite rapidly as people get older and that we’re not just talking about people who are in those groups above the age of 65. You see a significant decline in digital ability from people who are 45 years and older.

And of course many of our kind of programs (on offer), related to building digital skills and digital literacies aren’t really targeting those groups necessarily terribly well.

This is the last slide. I hope this sort of start is useful. I think it is interesting. This is a slide showing where people are using the internet in Melbourne and in the rest of the state and looking at the differences between men and women there, I think that it’s interesting here that you can see that regional women are much less likely to be using the internet in the full range of settings including workspaces, friends and family, public libraries and so forth, which is really where we see the whole gamut of of internet use in in Melbourne and more amongst males than females. So Mary, I hope that it is useful in providing some context in setting out the differences between what we’re seeing in relation to digital skills for rural women in Victoria. There are really significant gaps across all of those age groups and levels of education and I think these factors are going to be important for our considerations about what we do about this. Oh and I would like to encourage people to have a look at our website, which is the digital inclusion index one which enables you to dig into this data and to explore it yourself and the website for our Centre if you want to know more about it as well.

Mary Crooks:  Julian, thank you, that is a great overview and it was an absolute pleasure to see data presented without hundreds of words of text!

But I guess I mean that there are a lot of very striking aspects of your presentation. You know, one we might come to in the discussion, the obvious one apart from the regional rural and urban divide, is the gender divide in terms of men and women – we might come back to that later, but also and including equity disparity within a female cohort itself of women within the population – but thank you they were really fantastic slides and and it’s great that people will be able to follow up and get access to the research in their own good time. Thank you very much.

Mary Crooks: So Kathleen, you’re our next presenter. So following on from that pretty cogent kind of research does that accord with your general impression of what might be happening in terms of the digital divide and what particular points would you be wanting to make flowing out of that?

Kathleen Lively: Thanks, very first let me also acknowledge that I’m coming to from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and I really want to thank Mary and Bronwyn who came to visit me gosh, it seems forever ago now when we started talking about this and as you said, I’m really quite passionate about this because I do think you know,  information certainly is power and the more you can have access to it, the more empowered you can be and thanks Julian very much for those slides. They were really interesting. 

Indeed this business is about digital literacy, you know IT skills and, at this point they really are life skills. I think it’s a foundational skill for anyone to exist in the world that we are living in today. I know it occurred to me – and this must have been maybe it was 10 years ago, when I was at the Embassy in London.

I was stopping by the mailroom to pick up some packages and I saw a little two-year-old in a stroller with an iPhone and in his hands he was very cleverly manipulating the Thomas the Tank Engine video, you know without any problem whatsoever. And that’s when I said to myself, okay, you know how to do that so where does the digital divide drop off – around the age of 45?

Whether it’s men or women, but definitely women are more in that bucket. And the digital natives are 45 and under in this group. So I do think it’s critically important to focus on that group of women, you know 45 and older range.  

One of the things that I think about particularly with my own experience is what do you need for digital literacy? You need to know beyond what you guys have already identified. Yes, you need the access and yes, it needs to be affordable. But this business -about ability, people need to feel comfortable with technology, and I think sometimes for women it’s like they feel like they’re going to break something.

You know you’re not gonna break (your device)  – you really aren’t and the willingness to try, and to fail and start again. I’m going to try to be just like that two year old. He was okay with it and it could have been a girl. Don’t get me wrong because it didn’t make any difference. It was just the age. I’m just gonna try it. I mean let’s get this thing to the point. I want to get it to go and then I’m gonna press the button and it’s gonna go,  so that’s the sort of willingness to try to keep going. Don’t worry. You’re not going to break it. So, how does the technology work? You know, (you need to feel confident that) I know I’m not gonna break it.

What can I do with the technology so that knowledge about what is available and I think you have talked a little bit about the services particularly after crisis or even just normal life, the services that are available. They are online. That’s where that stuff is now, and you have to be able to know what’s out there and know how to get to it.

I think one of the things that you would then ask and talk about is …do I feel comfortable and safe in that environment? So number one,  knowing that I’m confident. I’m not going to break it (device). It is not going to break. I can try things and number two – how do I secure myself? Like, you know  ….I’m insecure about my own information because information these days is so personally identifiable information, and it is quite necessary (to have access to) when you’re dealing with crises. Your name and maybe you know addresses and phone numbers and things like that to feel safe which leads to how do I feel safe online? So these are (the critical) digital literacy skills (women need).

I think that the other piece that I would point out Mary is just around terminology because I think some of it is just really scary because we don’t understand the terminology. If we don’t understand how to access it and we think it’s going to break or something is wrong, not knowing the terminology sort of makes us more hesitant to keep going to fix things. 

Mary Crooks: What would you do from your own experience in applied technology and just you know, moving around different countries what would you posit as the explanation for that divide between men and women? Why are men showing up more strongly in terms of digital capacity?

Kathleen Lively:  Yeah, I do think it’s the confidence piece of being afraid to fail because you’re (also) afraid to break it (the device). And another thing I would say, which I think is quite interesting, I came to this assignment from Kenya. So I spent and as you know, two years in Kenya and the women in one sense – because they didn’t come to technology in (a western) sense as technology came to Kenya late. So they weren’t sort of tied into (a digital divide) generationally, as the technology they’re using is all in the cloud. It’s all mobile. They don’t have the ability to have computers at home or infrastructure at home. And I think in skipping over that old pathway that was very dominated I think by men to be honest, it’s helped them become women entrepreneurs.  The women that I found in Kenya – there’s a whole bunch of other things happening in Kenya in terms of poverty and income divide, but the people that had access to technology, the women, were much, much more likely to be successful with technology because it wasn’t the old thing that the men did. 

You know that the guys who do the computer programming and the guys who built the hardware were on their mobile phones doing all of their work in the cloud using mobile apps and I think they were a bit more – a bit better situated than perhaps the women that we see who grew up with a sort of an older version of technology. So, in Kenya, I thought it quite interesting that they are more willing (to learn skills) to be honest. They’re in a position where they have to take risks to survive. They’re much more willing to try something. And so I do think confidence is the piece in this of trying, failing and trying again. Try something else, don’t give up.

Mary Crooks: So definitely love to come back to that. We’ll move on to Alana for the moment. But I’d love to come back to that point about old pathways and I’d love to get Julian’s response to that as well. So let’s park that for now as I think it’s a really interesting line of inquiry to take up in our discussion, but now Alana let’s get over to you. You’ve had the experience as Project Director of Rural Women Online throughout our planning phase in 2021, and then really rolling it out across the community in 2022. So in light of what Julian said, and in the context and Kathleen’s points, just give us your key reflections at this stage around Rural Women Online and what that has taught us about the digital divide that women experience in the time of crisis. 

Alana Johnson: Thank you Mary. And it’s my pleasure to have spoken about the Rural Women Online project a number of times now so first let me say that I live and work in Northeast Victoria near Benalla, which is Taungurung Country. And acknowledge that it’s land that’s never been ceded. 

I think my starting point Mary should be to talk about women. So women have always got together to share the load, to share their knowledge to support one another and support their communities. And I think that’s been happening on this continent for 60,000 years plus. I think it’s in the DNA of us as women, certainly since colonial settlement women in rural and regional Australia have found ways to connect even though they’ve been distributed across this vast land and have had difficult access to one another. We only need to look at the Country Women’s Association who turn 100 (years old) shortly and what a story that is about women connecting together.

So in my part of Victoria and Northeast Victoria as in most of the rest of the state rural women get together to learn and share experiences and share food and celebrate and we do that numerous times a year. But at this stage, I think it would be interesting to take you back to the winter of 2020 during the first pandemic lockdown.

I think an email (was sent) to the group of women in Northwest Victoria who would normally have got together to say….yeah, (the pandemic means) we’re in a pretty sad situation. Let’s have a zoom meeting and one of the older women in my community rang me on the telephone and said I would love to Alana, but what is zoom?

It made me realise that so many women out there during that pandemic time hadn’t seen anyone for weeks. The only access they had to the world was the telephone.

And their digital skills were really limited and (they expressed just) how marginalised and isolated they felt and in particular one woman – that I’m happy to say was assisted on the spot by some other rural women in her community – delivered a camera for her computer and other things to her physical mailbox.  Then via a call on the phone (they) got her online and today she tunes into the Wheeler Centre and the Women’s Trust events and she downloads audiobooks from the library and her whole life is different because of it.

But the more I asked around the more I realised how many isolated women there were not only from their family and friends, but they were unable to participate in this world as Kathleen says, that increasingly requires digital skills. So they didn’t know how to pay bills or receive Telehealth or order groceries or access support services, do their banking and of course importantly do paid work from home.

And these women who normally would have accessed one another for support and connection were isolated from each other as well. So that notion of being marginalised, voiceless and unable to participate was really brought to a head during that pandemic time of the lockdowns.  Given that Mary Crooks and I were both brought up in rural Victoria we understood the importance of connection to women in rural and regional areas. We got our heads together and conceived of this project – Rural Women Online and it was initially funded by the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Bendigo Bank Community Enterprise Foundation and they, like us, wanted to do something about trying to bridge this knowledge and participation gap that would actually work for women.

One of the things that we were aware of is that so many digital skills courses focused on employment and education opportunities, but not on being able to actually live life well and Kathleen just mentioned that digital skills are life skills and we need to be cognisant of that.

The importance of women’s connections were not a factor in how these courses were being delivered. So the Rural Women Online program was designed for women by women. Hopefully who understood how relational aspects of learning is such a critical factor.

So the program was designed around relational aspects: open days across the state women putting up their hand to mentor other women and be available to them, to ask any questions. Then a friendly help desk operated from the Victorian Women’s Trust office in Melbourne, and we were there as part of women’s lives during this program. And for those women it didn’t matter what level of digital knowledge they had or didn’t have, all those issues that we know about as Kathleen mentioned, about the fear of doing something wrong about feeling ashamed that you might be behind the eight ball and that you should know more and therefore you don’t want to let on, and the notion of being a nuisance to your family and friends because you keep asking them the same question all the time,  because you can’t remember what to do. All of those things have been barriers to women and we really needed to be alert to that in designing this program and I think stage one was incredibly successful during that time. We had over 500 women at our open days. A hundred plus women were mentored and matched up with another woman who willingly gave her time to help. All in all about 21,000 people access the website.

And we figured out that through the printed and digital media we reached about 1.8 million people.

And so our stage one of this program gave us great hope and confidence to actually move with this program as being a way that really women appreciated as a place and a platform where they could engage and learn.

So just finally Mary I was thinking about what did we learn from stage one?

And I think one of the things that’s really critical, particularly as we talk about the challenges of the climate that we’re seeing play out and will continually do so across our nation, is that digital access and participation is not just about employment and it’s not just about the economy and working from home. It’s actually about community. It’s about mental health and it gets down to being about, you know, dignity and rights for women. I’ll just like to share a little story at this stage from one of our open days. We had an open day in one of the more isolated parts of Victoria.

And this woman came along and didn’t say anything for ages and just sort of sat up back and then quietly had a conversation with one of our project workers on the day and said that she had moved from Melbourne to the country – about four hours from Melbourne to care for her elderly mother.

And of course her mother had no internet access at the house and this woman didn’t have great means herself and couldn’t afford to put on any sort of internet connection and only had limited data access on her phone, but one of the things that always been really important in her life was her connection to her previous daily life to upload photos and to connect with people –  and she couldn’t afford to, she had no access. So not only had she moved from Melbourne to the country, she was there with her elderly mother, she was there in this isolated area where she knew no one but she had actually lost her access to the world. And when she came along and found out that there was free Wi-Fi at the library that she could upload photos and do whatever she liked by visiting the library that there would be people there to help her, her whole outlook changed and this changed her world.

And I’m telling that story because it’s a story of so many women who found themselves in flood-ridden towns after the aftermath of fires. Where critical connection for your own well-being for your community and for then trying to focus on what the future can look like and how can I participate in it is absolutely critical. So as we enter a new phase I suppose we’re going to see increasing numbers of crises than digital access and digital ability become even more important. So I suppose I’d like to finish off with the notion that in this world we are expected to have digital knowledge in order to be able to participate. We’re told that by the banks by the big telcos by the government, but unfortunately, none of they them are doing anything to make digital ability available and particularly to rural women and this program I think is proving that it isn’t that hard, that it just takes people who understand to actually deliver something that can work for women and basically change their lives so over to you Mary.

Mary Crooks: Thanks, Alana and I think I was going to come back at the end to say this but the Rural Women Online website is still alive. And well, we may even be able to go into a second stage of program delivery, but there are 15 how-to guides on that website that are still really relevant and very germane to the issues that our three speakers have been talking about. I wonder if I can throw back to you first up Kathleen you talk about digital capacity being lifelong. I’m wondering from listening to Alana and Julian if in part one of the obstacles in the way here might be that our society’s messages are that digital capacity is something that’s very employment related rather than a life skill. 

Kathleen Lively: I think you’re absolutely right and I think Julian and Alana did an  excellent job of talking about that. I mean, yes, of course you need connectivity to do work from home, but it is, you know – again, digital skills are our life skills at this point. It is part of community. It is part of making your household work. So I do think that characterisation does hold people back. I think about my own mother who is back in the States and who’s 86 and she is, you know, not working anymore at the office, but she uses the internet.  She’s in rural Virginia -farm country far away from anything,  and that’s how she makes sure she keeps in contact with her faith community with me and her grandchildren all of those things. So it’s not just about work. It really is about life and checking your bank account! And so I think the work that you’re doing in this project. I really think it’s fantastic and we’re very happy to continue to support the effort.

Mary Crooks: And Julian, what about a response from you around the capacity in the lifelong integration with life and not simply career dimensions?

Julian Thomas: Absolutely. I think it’s, you know, really one of the profound lessons from this project and it certainly sort of reinforces my thinking about digital inclusion over a few years of research on the subject. It’s much more. Not just employment or just education. I think one of the reasons for those big gaps is that we see a very unequal distribution of digital skills and capabilities. But also the affordability problems and the infrastructure issues in regional communities has been that governments and telcos and industry and perhaps our educational institutions ourselves, we’ve all had a rather narrow view of what we’re trying to do. We’ve thought about digital communications more in terms of the engineering and the infrastructure than in terms of people’s capabilities and skills.

Without perhaps recognising how important it is to bring those together. It’s not that the infrastructure isn’t important. Of course it is and and more so than ever but it isn’t really worth it unless we do the sort of work that Alana has been talking about and I think we also have to revisit some of those assumptions that have surfaced in the debate about public investment in digital capability; where we’ve had an idea that if it’s for work, it’s a good thing if it’s for education, it’s a good thing, but if people are using the internet for entertainment or social connections or things like Instagram, that’s that’s not so desirable and it isn’t worthy of investment, but together with the points that Alana and Kathleen made as well I think really underline how important they are. 

Mary Crooks: And these, these systems for our everyday communication and connection and everything we’ve lived through -the pandemic and all the crises are absolutely critical.

Kathleen Lively: So Mary for me, this is reinforcing some very important points about balancing out our investment in building capabilities. So we are looking beyond just the engineering challenges and the instrumental value of connectivity towards the broader social importance. 

And of course recognising just how absolutely critical that is in the sorts of emergency situations and crisis situations that people have experienced – so much.

Mary Crooks: Thank you. And here’s a policy question for the three of you, as you showed in your slides, a tapering off (of skills) from age groups 45+ by both genders however female tapering off (is significant). Kathleen talked about the two-year-old, you know, the toddler, you know busy watching Thomas the Tank Engine on a little screen, however from a policy point of view is this a question where we just let it rip and we take a lesser approach in the digital sphere –  who will win out or do we return to actually think about some particular interventions from an equity point of view?  Just seems to me that the next generations are arguably going to be more proficient, perhaps more literate digitally and take for granted access issues, capability and affordability. But if there is a trend where certain age groups and beyond are actually behind the eight ball. What’s the policy issue there? Do you think Alana can I throw to you first and then we’ll get a response from Kathleen and Julian.

Alana Johnson: So I suppose my response to that Mary is do we approve of a society that actually purposely marginalises any group of people because that is actually what’s happening.

On the radio across Victoria for the last few weeks. There’s been a lot of people talking about Bank branches shutting down in this or that rural town and it feels like as customers the banks are not interested in them anymore. They’re small customers. They’re used to going into their bank. They often still get cash.

Why should they have their lives reduced and their way of living and why should their experience be so marginalised and silenced just because the majority want to do it a different way and I think when you look at that, it’s purposeful marginalisation. It’s not something that’s just happened over time; they are actually condoning what is happening. I think our government really needs to take that on board. There is condoning of the big businesses like Banks and telcos and government services like Medicare to actually marginalise people.

Mary Crooks: Okay, I think that’s a fine introduction to the policy. Julian, what would you say about that? 

Julian Thomas: Well, I think it’s, it’s an opportunity for our governments to try to improve service provision in under-served regions of Australia and for those communities and those groups of people who are most dependent on goods and services. And so I mean in Australia the Commonwealth government from the beginning has had a mandate to provide communication services to the entire country. That was, and that’s been a critical key idea, and I don’t think we can step back from that, what I think the figures show as you said Mary – we’re talking about a decline in digital skills and capacities from the ages of the mid 40s onwards. That is very, very substantial.

This is an important part of the population increasingly active in work increasingly critical to the economy, increasingly important for caring for all kinds of absolutely essential community activity. So I don’t think any of us really have a choice about this. We have to be investing more in it. We’ve made some progress in terms of building and providing better infrastructure. We’ve got much more to do on all of that. But as services go online, we can’t possibly allow, you know, those people who need those services most, to be more excluded from them than they would be otherwise.

Mary Crooks: Yeah, right and Kathleen any additional thoughts from what the Alana and Julian have posited. 

Kathleen Lively: No, I completely agree. I think it’s clear that services are moving online – and marginalising people and so what is corresponding?

We need to act to ameliorate that and that has to do with digital literacy skills. You have to if you’re pushing everything online, be able to teach people how to get there to get those services because I do think they can be more efficient. 

I do think you can reach more people and provide more access to more things. I know my Dad, who’s 88, loves to go to the bank and go and talk to people for half an hour about things and he can’t do that anymore. But you know, it is the fact that he still needs to have banking services and he can’t have those banking services as they’re online and they have to be taught how to access them. So it is part and parcel with those two things. You can provide more service and you can provide more efficient service, but you have to bring the people with you, and you have to have the skills training to allow that to occur.

Mary Crooks: I wonder as another, you know slightly provocative take on this from a policy point of view that it seems to me from from an experience that I and many people had even in trying to establish our own director IDs by navigating the digital world that we were shown to be vastly illiterate, when in fact the problem was actually with the providers of the of the means by which we exist, to be able to become registered ourselves as directors. So Julian, perhaps a quick word from you. I’m assuming that in the world of governments and providers who are expecting greater returns and reach from being (online) the digital that many are actually doing a shocking job of enabling this to be an accessible world for people. 

Julian Thomas:  Well, look, I think that’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, Mary and one of the things I think we all have to argue for is much better responsiveness. I think we all should expect more from from governance from governments and other major service providers in terms of making sure that their services when they are online and and I think you know, I agree that there is potential for greater efficiency and accessibility there, but they have to be more successful more more accessible and I think they need to be designed and deployed working with communities who are going to use these services and yeah me that’s the main thing that’s been missing so far. 

Mary Crooks: Yeah and Kathleen, what do you think about that? 

Kathleen Lively: You know, I think a provider that’s actually lived the experience should be front and centre.

It is an excellent point and I think it’s interesting because you know, I’ve been in the technology business as a diplomat for a long time and one of the major problems when you develop any new system or software, is that the people doing the developing are not talking, you know are not what we call gathering requirements and understanding the user interface the user experience from the population that has to use that platform or that system. It is not a new problem, but it becomes more critical when you’re talking about healthcare banking services those sorts of things and so it it is a responsibility of those service providers to make sure they understand how does the 84 year old in rural wherever how do they see that system and how can they that system be designed so that it’s easy because the fact of the matter is they can post to Instagram right or to Facebook. They know how to do that, right? They can because the creators of those systems have created them to be very very user-friendly.

Right and therefore any other system can be created that way as well. They just simply need to understand and work with, like you said, the population that’s going to be impacted and that should be a system requirement.

Mary Crooks: Alana what’s your thought in this regard?

Alana Johnson: Well, I think Julian and Kathleen have both made really good points about that notion of designing and deploying (digital capability programs) according to the communities where those services are going to be used. So this reinforces for me what I said earlier about understanding how effective relational learning is particularly to women. So too many places put instructions up on a web page or whatever, and expect us to be able to take those on board and implement them like 20 year olds do,  it doesn’t work that way. So if only people realise the investment in relational learning by having Open Days by having places where women connect with other women like our mentor program system and actually this is the most effective way of learning and we really need to to emphasize that point as Banks and health agencies actually move further into the digital world that they put enough people resources into helping people to come on board.


Mary Crooks: Well, Julian, I just want to come back to you now, one of your early slides that pointed to quite a significant difference across the board of men and women as to men doing better on so many criteria around the use of technology. What’s – or is there a fairly simple explanation of that particular gender difference?

Julian Thomas: I think that digital inclusion is quite complicated. It intersects with so many other elements of social life and an economic position that I think it’s often in those other aspects that we find some of the answers to this. So it’s about people’s access to education. It’s about their proximity to technology. So this is getting to some of the points that Alana’s been making it’s about how sometimes people researchers in this area talk about how important people’s proximity to the internet is in the sense of how close they are to other people who are using these sorts of Technologies because as Alana was saying it’s that relational learning which is absolutely critical people get confident about technology when they see people they know using technology and that’s what actually distribute skills and capacity the the answer to your question is an intersectional one. It’s about the way in which education, economic advantage, access to computers or technologies in workplaces or other places, housing and all of those issues work together, and we know that women are particularly disadvantaged and particularly vulnerable when we look at all of those measures in aggregate. So I think that the picture you’re seeing reflects that but it doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything about it. 

Mary Crooks: Yeah, we’re going to wind up soon Kathleen. I’m going to give you the last word on that particular manifestation of gender difference harking back to your really interesting point about the women in Kenya. You talked about the societal pressure or pathways that we’ve put on women, you know technology and the quote unquote Western world. It was a man’s world and it was likened more to sort of ‘engineering’ and you know, here’s a screwdriver! 

Kathleen Lively: Here’s a thing that you know, here’s a machine and you’re gonna make it work and that I think traditionally wasn’t really (considered) women’s work and I think that didn’t really exist in some of these more developing societies. And so when the technology appeared that was already you know mobile cloud-based more user-friendly they were able I think to pick it up more quickly and and roll with it.

Now that is a very broad brush gender view of technology and how that works. But I do think there is something to be said for – and I completely agree about relational learning and seeing other people that you work with and live with and commune with, using technology to make that life more rich.Also this gives you the confidence to go and do those things and to lean into that. 

And again, I do think it’s confidence. I do think it’s willingness to try, oh, I’m not gonna break it. I’m just gonna try something else and that’s okay and that is not a man’s gain. It’s not a man’s world. It’s part of life. 

I just had a thought listening to the three of you that you know, despite women perhaps being behind in terms of actual digital literacy. In my mind I’d like to flesh out the question of the kind of monitoring and the parental responsibility increasingly – for looking at the screen time and looking at perhaps monitoring for what their children should be looking at and what they shouldn’t be looking at and I rather suspect my hunch is that it’s probably that load that carer parental line is probably actually falling on women more than men is my guess because of the gendered nature of household work and supervision and family care. So even if a woman is behind herself in the digital states, she’s probably actually under pressure to see that her children are doing the right thing and not the wrong thing when it comes to the use of digital technology.

Mary Crooks: Look we could talk about this for many many more minutes and hours, but we are on a timeframe. So I’m going to wrap up. This is a recording that I hope will be able to go far and wide into the reaches of not just regional Victoria, but around Australia generally, so in wrapping up. I really do want to thank first of all our panelists Kathleen Lively from the US Consul General Melbourne, Alana Johnson as Project Director of Rural Women Online and Julian Thomas,  for your fantastic research contribution Julian strength to your arm and to RMIT for that program.

Rural Women Online was funded by the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Bendigo Bank’s Community Enterprise Foundation with support from Libraries Victoria. So we do have to acknowledge again how extraordinary that support has been in fostering and creating interest in this whole area.

To you Kathleen. Thanks again to the US Consulate Melbourne for enabling us to actually bring this kind of webinar to you today and with the grants that you’ve enabled us to produce further looms for our website. It’s highly appreciated.

I must thank Bronwyn Johnson, the project manager of Rural Women Online. Such a sterling job that she’s done all through 2022 to bring it forward as a great program across Victoria and to to staff such as Jess Dugdale Walker for working with Bronwyn’s fine leadership on aspects of the project and finally today for this webinar for Mandy Girvan for technical production and for being able to sort out particularly problems that we had very early in the piece.

Thank you all out there accessing this webinar with your digital capacity to understand these debates and get your head around these issues for taking the time to watch this recording. So take care everyone and go well.


This presentation has been made possible by the United States Consulate General Melbourne; Bendigo Bank Community Enterprise Foundation; and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust

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