They are women in technology. Hear them roar.

Activist Barbara Ferris may have been one of the least technical people at the Women In Technology International Conference last week, but she's not shy about her plans to use computers to empower women in developing countries.

"I see the Internet as a huge resource and a very powerful resource," said Ferris, the president of International Women's Democracy Center, a global group that trains women outside the U.S. to run for office in their countries. "Groups like mine are just now seeing the potential."

Ferris spoke at a WITI session, held in Santa Clara, California, called 'Technology & Democracy'. It's the first time in the conference's four years that WITI has offered such a policy-focused roundtable.

Participants plan to push WITI to adopt a policy arm that will advocate using technology to promote women's issues and human rights. Right now, WITI focuses mainly on career education and networking.

Ferris said both the proliferation and the power of the Internet is leading to the convergence of technology and policy. She plans to educate potential candidates in developing countries on the Internet's potential to reach constituents and people outside their country's borders.

"It's a very powerful tool simply to access information. They have no idea," Ferris said. In addition, Ferris hopes to develop a giant database that people all over the world can access for information about women's leadership issues, perhaps spurring some to run for office.

Anita Borg, a researcher at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in California, plans to work with Ferris and others in finding ways to incorporate technology into social change. She said people need to understand that failing to learn about technology can hinder personal and financial freedom, particularly in developing countries.

"We really need to see our involvement in understanding technology as nearly as important as our involvement in empowerment in other political decisions," she said.

Going forward, Borg said people need to keep a close eye on how governments are regulating the Internet, which she said could adversely impact women.

"The potential for democracy is there, but there's no guarantee it will stay that way," Borg said, particularly if certain countries try to restrict certain information or legislate filtering techniques.

Kathleen Case, of The Institute for Women's Leadership in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said debates about bringing women and technology together also need to focus on access. "There must be ways that we make technology much more accessible to everyone," she said, suggesting small, inexpensive connected devices in lieu of today's pricy handheld computers.

Several women had suggestions for attendees on how to get more involved in promoting democracy through technology.

They included: enlisting Congress members, founding a group within one's company to address the issue, joining one that already exists, or simply asking executives what they're doing to make socially responsible products.

Already, technology -- particularly the Internet -- has been a boon for women, panelists said. In addition to driving the economy, the Internet has enabled women in oppressed countries to skirt government-run broadcasting operations and access outside information. It's also boosted e-commerce, putting small businesses -- many of which owned by women -- on par with larger ones.


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