Although from observations and anecdotal evidence, we have “known” of the existence of a gender gap in information and communication technology (ICT), there has been a dearth of data supporting this. Without substantive data, national and international policy goals have failed to prioritize integration of gender in ICT planning. Recent research efforts conducted by large through private-public partnerships, have studied the role of gender in ICT and provide us a glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead.
According to a report published by Intel, titled Women and the Web:
“on average across the developing world, nearly 25 percent fewer women than men have access to the Internet, and the gender gap soars to nearly 45 percent in regions like sub-Saharan Africa.”
Although most of the developing world has seen a rapid boom in cell phone usage and internet access, women have largely been left out of this technology revolution. It is also shocking to see this trend exist in developed countries, bringing into question the traditional explanations for this divide, namely cultural norms and overall freedom of expression, or the lack thereof.
This technological divide is very much part of the gender inequality that remains deeply entrenched in societies across the developing world. Women continue to enjoy lesser freedom of movement to get access to technical sources, be it through a cell phone or a cyber cafe. Despite equal opportunities for all being enshrined in law, women in much of the developing world are not availed this promise. Beginning at an early age with the quality and amount of schooling, this inequality in opportunity pervades throughout their lives as there are barriers to higher education and formal employment. Being technologically adept can play a major role in being competitive in the job market and in turn enabling women to pull themselves out of poverty. Formal sector employment rates for women, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, remains very low and has perpetuated economic dependency, gender-based violence and range of other issues.
Women in most of the developing world already face barriers such as poverty, discrimination and cultural stigmas, that hinder their access to technology. And while access to information and communication technology is regarded as a means of empowerment and a tool in overcoming poverty, what we are witnessing is a gender gap in the digital divide acting as a “poverty trap”.
While investing in women’s empowerment has already been proven to be one of the most effective development interventions, investing in women’s access to technology should also be a priority for governments and the civil society. Many organizations have already integrated improving access to technology for women in their portfolio of programs. The Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia have been using ICT and access to social media as a tool in the fight against gender-based violence. A recent study at Stanford University has shows that access to mobile phones significantly lower a woman’s tolerance of domestic violence, by allowing greater connectivity.
This gender gap in technology is not simply an access issue, neither is it solely an issue in the developing countries. There is a negative attitude towards girls’ achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that exists throughout the world. I attended one of the top engineering universities in the US, and the percentage of girls in most of my engineering classes lingered in the single digits. Having graduated, I went on to work for an engineering company, where the number of women in leadership roles were even lower. Point being, the gender dimension of this digital divide is multifaceted and cannot, and should not be solely be attributed to poverty.
ICT programs around the world must analyze their activities through the gender lens, and address any barriers to access for women. Moreover, more programs should be introduced that specifically promote women’s access to technology at all levels. Girls should be encouraged to take up STEM studies, and schools and universities should promote enrollment of girls in these fields. Programs such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day should be on every high school/university’s agenda.
Without access to ICT, women are a greater risk of being left behind as agents of change in the rapidly evolving global society. ICT is an important tool for advancing gender equality, women’s empowerment, and a more equitable world.