Why are you talking to a blank screen?


This is the fifth blog post of the AI Research and COVID: Journeys to Gender Equality and Inclusion series. This blog series emerged from the “writeshop” organized by Gender at Work as part of the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Program to Combat COVID-19, also known as AI4COVID, financed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The initiative was part of the final Gender Action Learning workshop held in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2023.

In this blog post, Mahlet Hailemariam shares her experiences of juggling online work, challenged by unreliable internet connection and power blackouts while caring for her mother. Her story will resound for many of us who found ourselves forced to work virtually, and often feeling excluded due to differing time zones and internet issues. Despite these challenges, Mahlet reflects positively on the achievements of her online accompaniment of AI4COVID researchers to strengthen integration of gender equality and inclusion in their research, and sense that she is still very privileged compared to many.

There is no one there

I spent the night at my mother’s place. She needed my help as she had survived a stroke a few days earlier. I told her I had a Zoom meeting later that night and to please go to sleep. But since I was sitting in her living room working, she was unable to sleep.

She approached me and put a blanket over me, because she was afraid that I would feel cold. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You are talking to a blank screen? Are you OK? There is no one there…” She heard the person from the other end talking in response to me and she went back to her room, moving extremely slowly.

I looked at her and talked to the screen at the same time, afraid that she might fall down, ready to spring into action to help her.

I find it difficult to be in two places at once. Yet that is the expectation we all have as people living in an urban setting in the modern era. Yet it can be hard not to feel excluded.

© Freepik.

Working with a weak connection

I understand when people keep their screen off in Zoom meetings, since their Internet connection lacks the strength to hold a video call. As much as I hate to do it, I also keep my video off often when I have a weak connection, trusting that the person on the other end will tolerate speaking to the blank screen. ‘Your connection is unstable’ will appear on the screen on top of the video and immediately you will see a frozen picture of the person on the other end.

I live in Addis Ababa. Not only is the Internet connection weak at times, but now and again we also have complete power blackouts that can last from a few minutes to as long as 24 hours. ‘I cannot join the meeting as we have a blackout,’ is a common message that I send out to anyone working online with me over WhatsApp or Telegram. The data connection? It is often so weak it is a miracle that I even manage to send a message.

If luck is with me, the connection will return after a moment. But the most important part of what the person is talking about will already be gone.

In 2021, I began working for the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) helping to develop a gender and intersectionality checklist and monitoring tool. As part of the AI4COVID initiative, I provided technical support to the APHRC teams in Kenya and Malawi in their efforts to incorporate gender and intersectionality in their Artificial Intelligence-based research for better health outcomes.

I soon discovered that a poor connection was not only my problem. My colleagues were often in the same position. One of us might have been able to get online, while others might not. The most worrying Zoom meeting might not be a one-on-one conversation with people in a similar situation. For me, when the discussion is with a larger group of people and it is an online workshop, that is when anxiety hits me beginning in the wee hours of the day. Will the electricity go? Will the Internet be strong enough?

Maybe I am attracting all those troubles, I wonder. After all, they say ‘your fears come true.’

Remembering back, I am surprised how much I and my APHRC colleagues managed to accomplish, despite communicating via those blank screens. It was difficult, but we managed somehow through mutual understanding and patience. It is amazing how much work we did together, sometimes raising difficult questions with people I have never seen before, even on screen― or briefly saw, in that box on the screen on one bright day.

Learning to deal with exclusion

Around the same time, I was also grieving my husband, who I had lost just one year before COVID-19. I was struggling to figure out how to deal with the legal, emotional and social aspects of widowhood. As a single mother, when everything shut down because of COVID-19, I had to quickly learn to do the caring and the breadwinning, as well as care for my ailing mother. As if those were not enough, I also had to worry about access to the Internet.

Yes, working online when the power goes out as often as a blink of an eye is very difficult. Worrying about the power, the strength of the Wi-Fi connection and so on has become part of my daily reality since the onset of COVID-19. My livelihood depends on the availability of both Internet and electricity, especially these days. But sometimes the government cuts the Internet out for days for one reason or another.

Gender and inclusion is at the heart of what I do every day, yet dealing with exclusion has become among the list of things I need to learn. What is that feeling of exclusion about?

You might think I feel excluded because of my physical location in Ethiopia, or by living in a less affluent nation. You might think being a single, grieving mother and caregiver for my mother makes me feel excluded. Or you might think I feel excluded for other reasons.

Yet I consider myself privileged when it comes to income and my location. Even if I am a single mother, I have never struggled financially, thanks to God. Taking care of my mother is difficult, but I can afford to hire a nurse. It is a choice I make to be with my parents as they are aging.

The Internet is a wonderful technology that brings people together across the planet. Unexpectedly, the irony is that I find myself feeling excluded more because of my time zone and the Internet than anything else.

I cannot complain. I am grateful for all my blessings. 

This blog post was written by Mahlet Hailemariam, Associate at Gender at Work, and is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2023 Mahlet Hailemariam.

Curious to read more reflections on AI, gender inequality and exclusions? Read the first blog posts from this series here: Amelia Taylor’s Can AI have its cake and eat it too?; Michelle Mbuthia’s Cook, Clean, Plan: A case for more gender-responsive policymaking, Meghan Malaatjie’s Are women programmed to think less and do more?, & Jim Todd’s Break out of your silo.

More to explorer

Feminist School

Empowering changemakers for gender justice and social transformation: a recap of the Feminist School journey

Co-created by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and Gender at Work, Feminist School was first structured to provide a unique virtual space for young feminist activists from across the world who were interested in deepening their understanding of feminist practices, principles, and approaches via experiential learning to advance gender equality in and through education in their communities.

Gender Equality & Inclusion Conversation Guide

For Gender at Work, the approach we take to gender equality and inclusion work typically focuses on longer-term action learning processes. We value reflective space and aim to create an opportunity for people to work together and to learn from each other over time, and typically tailor our support to meet specific needs.