Danica Radovanović discusses the detrimental effects of the digital gender divide, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and explores solutions to this growing issue.
For centuries we have been witnessing social and economic stratification between men and women. These inequalities are even more prominent and magnified in light of the accelerated growth of digital technologies. These changes gave birth to various digital divides, and the digital gender divide is one of the largest gender divides today. The detrimental effects of the digital gender gap are certainly experienced by all members of society, particularly by girls and women who suffer the most severe consequences.
The digital gender divide is expanding in many low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) countries worldwide, creating a specific need to initiate and support digital gender inclusion. According to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), globally, in 2020, 62% of men were using the Internet, compared with 57% of women. For example, the ITU’s regional estimates for Africa put the gender ratio at nearly three-to-two in favour of men over women. According to the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications), around 234 million fewer women in low- and middle-income countries use the mobile Internet than men. These inequalities are evident between women and men, and between girls and boys, regarding access to and use of Internet platforms and digital devices. Furthermore, poor network connectivity, the lack of access to devices and the sociological gap in usage (e.g., LMIC families prioritize giving boys access to digital devices over girls, and similar dynamics were highlighted with spouses, brothers, etc.), greater difficulties that female students face when accessing online learning tools, and limited new career opportunities for women in the field of digital technologies are all challenges that contribute to widening the digital gender divide.
The digital gender divide emphasizes four important facts: (i) there is unequal access to digital technologies between men and women, (ii) there is gendered differentiation in the capacity to meaningfully utilize technology due to the lack of digital skills, (iii) there is a lack of safety and security awareness when women use technology, and (iv) there is a lack of encouragement for girls to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) as well as the prevalence of gender stereotypes. Thus, the gender digital divide goes beyond internet access and digital devices.
Women’s skills, wisdom, and contribution to society bring crucial value: strengthening societies, building innovative economies, advancing knowledge and ultimately improving livelihoods. We need to tackle the causes and effects of the gender-based digital divide in LMIC through novel solutions driven by a strong gender dimension to achieve sustainable development that includes and benefits both women and men. For example, the relevance of gender equity in IT education and STEM is reflected in the implication that if internet applications and education services are developed by women they would be more relevant to their specific needs and context, which would, in turn, attract more women to the digital economy. We need initiatives that foster and support educating girls and women by delivering improved gender equality and inclusion policy dynamics in early education, prioritizing quality of education, job creation, improved digital access, digital skills development and inclusion of women and other disadvantaged groups.
For such initiatives to happen, we need to remind ourselves that despite the global consensus in treating the Internet and education as fundamental human rights, there are still a large number of girls and women who cannot access education and the Internet. Gender exclusion and inequality in education contribute to inequalities in economic, social, cultural, and other dimensions of well-being.
Some of the solutions could be capacity development projects, different programs of training for female students and women, personal development and technical skills development training, and career development using digital platforms, all while working in parallel on creating a conducive environment for girls and women to study, providing scholarships and mentorship opportunities for women in academia and the workforce, as well as providing financial and material support for female staff and students.
Some best praxis on such initiatives includes multi-stakeholder partnerships efforts involving a committed group of governments, businesses, academic institutions, NGOs and community groups around the world. For example, the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age is one of them, founded by the ITU, GSMA, the International Trade Centre, the United Nations University and UN Women. EQUALS contributes through actions and evidence-based research aimed at closing the global gender digital divide by promoting awareness, building political commitment, leveraging resources and knowledge, harnessing the capacities of partners, and supporting real action. Another example includes the digital skills development initiative, with the joined forces of UNICEF, ITU, and Code.org (a US-based non-profit organization Code.org) to encourage women and girls’ participation in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). They have organized ‘ICT for Girls’ events, ‘Hour of Code’ workshops co-led by female ICT students and youth leaders, webinars promoting STEM education among girls, and coding workshops for girls and young women highlighting the importance of digital gender equality in Asia and the Pacific. Through collaborative efforts, these examples address the gender gaps in opportunities when it comes to accessing, leveraging, and benefiting from digital technology.
The message is clear. Gender equality is a concern of human rights and it encompasses a multitude of complex and multi-faceted dynamics. Addressing a challenge automatically leads to considering other related needs in the journey towards gender equality, such as a strategic deployment of digital and innovative technologies in a meaningful, ethical, and affordable manner. Providing financial support for economically deprived and disadvantaged girls and women along with ensuring quality and policy framework would eventually meet the demands of digital transformation and innovation.
Digital technologies and innovation are the two pillars of holistic development and education has the leading role. Thus, the aforementioned statements and examples about the centrality of gender issues clearly tell us, among others, that implementation of gender-related initiatives requires special attention, close follow up and continuous corrective measures to ensure the achievement of the desired goals so we can establish a more equitable future for all.