Women in Technology -- Past, Present and Future

File photo dated 01/07/08 of a computer mouse and keyboard as ministers have rejected calls for internet providers to be forc
File photo dated 01/07/08 of a computer mouse and keyboard as ministers have rejected calls for internet providers to be forced to automatically filter websites for online pornography.

As many of the most influential women in the tech world gather for AT&T's luncheon, I am reminded of the role women have played in the technological revolution for generations. There's the inventor of closed-circuit TV, Marie Van Brittan Brown, the woman who developed laser cataract surgery, Dr. Patricia Bath and the female who created fiber optic communication, Dr. Shirley Jackson. All three are strong black women who not only fought against the roadblocks that are often set against us, but they established technology that benefits the entire community and beyond. At a time when we have such inequality in access to good education, jobs, decent housing and more, it's technology that just might let young Keisha in Chicago compete on the same level as Priscilla in her gated community.

For me personally, and for National Action Network (NAN), the success of so many black female inventors has special resonance. Much of their success is based on education and opportunity -- two ideas we at NAN so strongly believe are the civil rights issues of the 21st century. And if their work proves anything, it's that technology could make the difference between a kid hitting the corner to survive or hitting the books to make a difference. It's our job to make sure they have the access.

I recently read a thought-provoking speech that the FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, gave at a civil rights conference in Memphis, Tenn. She offered insight into how communication is revolutionizing our society, and creating opportunities for everyone. "Access to basic broadband has taken the way we experience the world to a whole new level," Clyburn said. "Access to broadband means access to better education, health care, job opportunities, news and information."

Evidence of Commissioner Clyburn's comments is everywhere. Both of Barack Obama's elections reflected his brilliant use of the Internet, specifically online social media. On health care, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said that online medical advances can reduce an elderly person's health care costs by 25 percent. And on education, a major California university just announced a landmark deal to create online courses that involve both professors and mentors in order to expand access to education to California students who may not be able to afford tuition.

A generation ago, organizing for social justice involved phone calls, letters, organizing meetings and putting signs on telephone poles. Today, we continue to mobilize and strategize, but we can harness the power of the Internet to bring people together to improve lives and effect change.

All of this underscores the importance of making sure that every American has access to the Internet, specifically high-speed broadband. Make no mistake -- America's connectivity is one of the most important economic and social issues we face. President Obama himself made it a priority, stating his goal of connecting 98 percent of all Americans to high-speed broadband access by 2016.

The ability to obtain affordable, modern communication networks will provide the pathway by which millions of women will continue to uplift themselves and their communities. Think of what broadband makes possible:

• Seniors who can't afford retirement homes can now have 24-hour monitoring as well as daily online heart and blood pressure checks from a nurse -- all while she remains comfortably in her home.

• Expecting mothers can use their online connection for prenatal monitoring and education -- even check-up reminders.

• Mothers can use the web to take online courses or gain their high school diploma.

• And a young girl looking to become the next Shirley Jackson or Marie Van Brittan Brown can learn more in a shorter time than was ever thought possible.

But we must remember that all is not certain. These capabilities are dependent on expanding and upgrading our nation's communications infrastructure and bringing advanced high-speed Internet Protocol-based networks and infrastructure to more Americans. To do this will require billions of dollars in new private sector investment as well as an approach to regulation that pushes continued investment. We must push policymakers to put in place regulations that treat all communications providers fairly and they must apply the rules equally so that all can compete evenly. If policymakers make the right decisions, consumers in every corner of the country can benefit.

During his Presidential Proclamation on Women's History Month, President Obama called for an America where "no matter where you come from or what you look like, you can go as far as your talents will take you." That's also NAN's vision and we believe that the Internet and technology will play an important role in realizing this future. It doesn't matter if you're in a rural town in Mississippi or the projects of Brooklyn, everyone deserves a shot at chasing their dreams. That's been NAN's goal from the beginning, and we won't stop fighting for justice until we get there - together.