Women and ICTs: Analyzing the Global Digital Divide


Women in the developing world have been the subject of much debate and investigation with regards to ICT access and adoption. Few disagree that women stand to gain a great deal from ICTs: “Internet access enhances women’s economic empowerment, political participation and social inclusion through initiatives that support increased productivity and income generation, mobilization and accountability, as well as improved livelihoods and expansion of services,” declared Michelle Bachelet
, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, in the 2013 report Women and the Web.[i]

Data continue to show that in the developing world, women consistently access and use technology at lower rates than men.[ii] The cause of this gap has been disputed.[iii] Some claimed that women were simply “technophobic,” less interested in technology, or less tech savvy than men.[iv] However, a 2011 study of 25 data sets from Latin America and Africa revealed that “the reason why fewer women access and use ICT is a direct result of their unfavorable conditions with respect to employment, education and income. When controlling for these variables, women turn out to be more active users of digital tools than men.”[v]

Based on this understanding, scholars and practitioners have identified the following as the key barriers that prevent women from realizing the potential benefits of the digital age:[vi]


  1. Infrastructure Access


Physical access to ICTs varies with the location and dependability of telephone lines, cellular and satellite networks, Internet services, and public technology centers. In many developing countries, infrastructure is concentrated in urban areas, while large numbers of women live in rural areas.[vii] Limited infrastructure prevents rural women from accessing ICTs in their homes and their communities, because the nearest Internet access point or cellular coverage area may be far away or inconvenient to visit.

In addition, many claim that “women, with their special responsibilities for children and the elderly, find it less easy than men to migrate to towns and cities. The urban bias in connectivity thus deprives women, more than men, of the universal right to communicate.”[viii]


  1. Social and Cultural Factors


Even when infrastructure is available, women still access and utilize ICTs less than men.[ix] This is often due to gender-based roles and responsibilities, such as caring for the home, children, and the elderly, which cause women to have less free time than men to experiment with and use technology. In one ICT development project, librarians at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare noticed that males were dominating computer use.[x] Female students, when asked why they weren’t using the computers, “spoke about their duties as wives and mothers at home— which they had to fulfill exactly during the time at which the computers were free.”[xi]

Women’s increased vulnerability to physical violence and intimidation can also be barriers to ICT utilization. In addition to the physical danger women may face traversing their own neighborhoods to access communications facilities, there are many well-known examples of women and girls being physically prevented from utilizing technologies. At the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, female students reported that “they ran the risk of being pushed out of the line by the male students.”[xii] In India, when the National Institute of Information Technology installed computers with Internet in impoverished neighborhoods, boys allegedly pushed girls aside, causing girls to withdraw, fearful of physical threats.[xiii]

Tradition gender roles that render technology as a male domain can also hinder women’s access to ICTs, as women may be directly or indirectly discouraged from utilizing ICTs. In Peru, for example, at an IT training program for rural farmers, researchers reported that the men tended to mock the women, and “women reported that their greatest difficulty with the training courses was not the level or the specialization, but men’s attitudes towards their participation.”[xiv] Gender norms may also be internalized. In a study in India and Egypt, one in five women believed the Internet was not “appropriate” for them.[xv]


  1. Education


Gender gaps in education are persistent throughout the developing world. Without basic literacy, ICTs are nearly impossible to utilize. In September 2013, UNESCO reported that 774 million adults worldwide lacked basic reading and writing skills—64% of whom were women.[xvi] Worldwide, 79.9% of adult women were literate, compared to 88.6% of men.[xvii]


  1. Financial Resources


Women, because of their high rates of poverty and domestic financial responsibilities, are less likely to have disposable income to spend on technological devices, service plans, or visits to technology centers. In a 2009 case study of mobile phone usage in northern Nigeria, researchers found that women, more than men, would take care of immediate household needs before buying time to use their phones, reducing their use of mobile phones relative to men.[xviii] In a household survey in Africa, in some countries as many as 50 to 70 percent of respondents cited cost as the main reason they were not connected to the Internet.[xix]

Given these significant barriers, it is not surprising that even after 13 years of heavy investment in ICT development projects, the global digital divide remains highly gendered. An international study published in 2013 by Intel estimated that 21 percent of women and girls in developing countries have access to the Internet, compared to 27 percent of men.[xx] This represents 200 million fewer women and girls than men and boys.

Gender gaps within the developing world vary greatly. In some developing countries, such as Honduras, Guyana and Thailand, Intel found that the share of women online exceeded that of men.[xxi] But overall, in every region studied (East Asia & Pacific, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe & Central Asia, Latin America & the Caribbean, and the Middle East & North Africa), an Internet gender gap of at least 10% was observed, with women lagging behind men.[xxii]


[i] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013.

[ii] Hilbert, 2011, page 7.

[iii] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013.

[iv] Hilbert, 2011, page 5, referring to Fallows, 2005.

[v] Hilbert, 2011, page 1.

[vi] Based on the published work of Nancy Hafkin.

[vii] Hafkin, 2002.

[viii] Hafkin, 2002, quoting UNIFEM, widely quoted.

[ix] For one example, see Bogota digital culture survey, whereby women use all digital tools less than men, despite equal levels of physical access and extremely high infrastructure coverage.

[x] Buskens, 2011, page 72.

[xi] Buskens, 2011, page 72-73.

[xii] Buskens, 2011, page 73.

[xiii] Hafkin, 2022, page 5, and Thas, et al.

[xiv] Puican, 2002.

[xv] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013, page 12.

[xvi] UNESCO, Institute for Statistics, 2013.

[xvii] UNESCO, Institute for Statistics, 2013.

[xviii] Comfort & Dada, 2009.

[xix] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013, page 12.

[xx] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013, page 22.

[xxi] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013, page 22.

[xxii] Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, 2013, page 23.

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History and Theory of Information and Communications Technologies for Development: Thinking Beyond Magic Wands

“In Colombia, everything is a challenge,” explained the tired-looking mother of two as she waited at an Internet café an hour outside of Bogotá, Colombia. “To have a home, children, study, good food. It’s hard to get everything for them that they want.”

This woman, 28 years old, had traveled from the farm where she works milking cows to the nearest town with an Internet café in order to have the local staff type and print an official document for the sale of several cows. She is, in many respects, the epitome of what international development agencies and policymakers envision when they build Internet cafés throughout the developing world: a low-income head of family with limited education, heavy domestic responsibilities, and no access to a computer or Internet at home. Like many in the developing world, she stands to gain a great deal from the connectivity and access to information and opportunities that technology can offer.

World leaders including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan have exalted the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to “help build digital bridges to the billions of people who are now trapped in extreme poverty, untouched by the digital revolution and beyond the reach of the global economy.”[i] According to Annan, “One of the most pressing challenges in the new century is to harness this extraordinary force, spread it throughout the world, and make its benefits accessible and meaningful for all humanity, in particular the poor.”

Annan issued these statements in 2001, at the launch of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force. As Annan was creating the UN ICT Task Force, enthusiasm for using ICTs such as mobile phones, computers and the Internet for development purposes was taking off worldwide.[ii] In July 2000, at the 28th G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, leaders from Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States issued the Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society, declaring that “everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society.”[iii]

Like the UN, the G8 recognized the potential revolutionary impact of ICTs for development.[iv] The Okinawa Charter states that “countries that succeed in harnessing its potential can look forward to leapfrogging conventional obstacles of infrastructural development, to meeting more effectively their vital development goals, such as poverty reduction, health, sanitation, and education, and to benefiting from the rapid growth of global e-commerce.”[v]

In their book ICT4D Information Communication Technology for Development, Parveen Pannu and Yuki Azaad Tomar summarize the revolutionary potential of ICTs in the following ways:


  • in their capacities to instantaneously connect vast networks of individuals and organizations across great geographic distances at a very little cost,
  • as key enablers of globalization, facilitating worldwide flow of information, capital, ideas, people and products,
  • transforming business, markets and organizations,
  • revolutionizing learning and knowledge-sharing.
  • empowering citizens and communities, and
  • creating significant economic growth in many countries.[vi]

 Recognizing a Digital Divide

In addition to their revolutionary potential, the G8 and the UN also recognized ICTs’ potential danger to generate a “digital divide,” a term first coined in 1995 by the United States Department of Commerce to describe the gap between those who have access to ICTs and the skills to use them, and those who do not.[vii]

With the introduction of the Internet, computers, mobile phones and other digital tools, “a new form of inequality is added to all the existing forms of discrimination: an inequality in the power to communicate and to process information digitally.”[viii]

In short, unequal access to ICT tools and networks among and within countries helps some individuals move forward into the digital age, leaving others even further behind. Researchers have noted that “distributing ICT without looking at inequality is a way to reinforce that inequality. ICT has such potential to empower its users that this uneven distribution of resources to get connected is very likely to increase inequality and to embed itself in the future.”[ix]

This uneven access to ICTs often reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities along racial, class, gender, and other dimensions,[x] and research has shown that ICT adoption patterns “are characterized by the same long established determinants of inequality as other aspects of social life, such as those related to income, education, skills, employment, geography, age and ethnicity, and gender, among others.”[xi]



[i] United Nations, 2001.

[ii] Pannu & Tomar, 2010, Page 5.

[iii] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.

[iv] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.

[v] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.

[vi] Pannu & Tomar, 2010. Page 5.

[vii] Ohashi, 2009.

[viii] Hilbert, 2011, page 4.

[ix] Buskens, 2011, page 72, quoting Sutton and Pollock.

[x] United Nations Development Programme, 2001.

[xi] Hilbert, 2011, page 5.

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Social Innovation at Colombia’s Digital Content Summit

1The term innovation has been so overused in the last few years that it’s become a cliché: companies use it to sell products, writers use it to sell books, and consultants use it to sell so-called solutions to their clients.

At a workshop this morning in Bogotá on Social Innovation for Poverty Elimination, Environmental Anthropologist Felipe Spath and Mobile Education Strategist Martín Restrepo led more than 30 participants in an experiential training aimed at sparking social innovation, grounding it in problem-solving, and de-mystifying the innovation process.

The workshop was part of “Colombia 3.0,” a digital content summit sponsored by Colombia’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MinTIC). The summit was designed to connect investors, entrepreneurs, developers, academics and digital producers from all over Latin America.

From July 29 – 31, in Bogotá’s upscale Zona T neighborhood, the conference offered nearly 150 workshops, lectures and meet-and-greets on animation, web, mobile, monetization, convergence, music, video games, government, business, and ICT.

At the Social Innovation for Poverty workshop, Spath opened by acknowledging the rampant over-use of the term social innovation. “Even soap commercials want to sell you social innovation these days,” he joked. In order to ground the innovation session in concrete problem-solving, Spath presented a short documentary trailer that portrayed the struggles of three Colombian farmers who are unable to earn a living off their land, and are facing the possibility of joining the increasing number of Colombians abandoning rural areas for urban centers.

Spath thus defined the problem at hand as how to help young people in rural areas stay there and still be connected to urban centers. He and Restrepo then presented Jinso, an interactive tool they are developing to help solve social problems and facilitate a participatory innovation process.



Seated in groups of six to eight, workshop participants downloaded the app “Jinso,” which accompanies a physical gameboard that guides players through the innovation process.

The game goes something like this:



1. Define the social problem, meet the players.

Players listed the change they wanted to generate, discussed the community they would be serving, and introduced their own strengths and abilities. Players themselves were coined “Heroes,” in reference to the many well-meaning individuals who arrive in communities and want to help solve social problems.


42. Discuss limitations and opportunities

Players discussed the challenges facing our chosen community (low education, physical isolation, unpredictable nature of agricultural subsistence) and opportunities we saw (rich natural resources, high levels of local knowledge, Internet connectivity).



3. Brainstorm and evaluate ideas.5

Following inspiring words from facilitators, players brainstormed ideas to use technology to serve our chosen community, and selected the top three “gems” we had generated.



64. Conceptualize action plan

We storyboarded our idea from the perspective of a community member to flesh out what steps would be necessary for implementation.


5. Review obstacles and revise7

Facilitators pointed out potential obstacles to success, and allowed us to revise our proposal before presenting the final version.

Our team ended up proposing a semi-virtual innovation lab to be constructed in town, where locals could get professional advice in a variety of areas from experts who had registered online to help.

Unfortunately, due to time restraints, the workshop ended abruptly before all participants could share their ideas with each other. But we did have time to receive our graduation certificated and pose for a picture.


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By The Numbers: The Sad State of Women and ICT in Colombia, and Why to Fix It

Colombian women have lower levels of access and ownership than men in all areas related to ICT. Millions lack access to computers, Internet and basic cell phones. This is largely due to cultural factors, a higher incidence of poverty, and rural residence. Many of the programs at MinTIC have helped increase the number of women using ICTs, however it is essential that for the government’s Vive Digital Plan 2014-2018, all components of the digital ecosystem—which are interconnected— integrate women in order to maximize the potential of technology for prosperity.

For this, it is essential to begin to collect and analyze gender and gepgraphically disaggregated data. The 2 major reports on this topic are severely lacking: “Digital Culture Colombia 2013” never mentions women, and the study “TechTracker” Ipsos-Napoleon Franco covers only Colombians living in cities of more than 200,000 people. As the UNDP says, without data, there is no visibility; without visibility, there is no priority.


• 57% of urban women in Colombia use the Internet daily (versus 61% of men). Only 38% of rural Colombians (men and women) use the Internet.
• 33% of urban women in Colombia have smartphones (versus 43% of men). Only 16% of rural Colombians have smartphones.
• About 4-5% of the professionals of the IT industry in Colombia are women.
• Only 13.7% of ICT entrepreneurs registered with MinTIC’s Apps.co program are women.
• 11% of students studying Computer and Systems Engineering at the University of the Andes are women.
• 38% of the MinTIC’s Digital Talent 2013 beneficiaries are women.


(1) Effects of ICT Industry:

The lack of talent for technology positions, which prevents growth. The ICT sector is growing in size and importance in Colombia, but the number of graduates (men and women) in Computer Systems is falling 5% annually. In addition, the low number of female graduates continues to fall. According to MinTIC’s own studies, if the ICT industry grows at 20% annually, by 2018 there will be a deficit of more than 93,000 computer engineers. By not focusing on women, Colombia is not using half the talent in the country to cover this gap.

The lack of diversity in teams, which prevents the success and competitiveness of Colombia’s Colombia’s tech industry. According to Dow Jones and the Harvard Business Review, startups with women are more likely to succeed, and the presence of gender diversity in the teams is shown to improve success.

(2) Effects on Women and Families:

Loss of access to services, support and online opportunities: including education, employment, new sales markets, social services, health services and domestic violence support. This is particularly important given the vulnerability of women: In Colombia, 56.1% of low-income people are women. 32% of households are headed by women, of whom 76% are single, separated or widowed. Of families in extreme poverty, 43% are headed by women.

(3) Effects on economic growth in Colombia:

The slowdown in economic growth. According to the World Bank, the economic progress of women promotes overall economic growth of a country, up to 9% of GDP in Latin America.


(1) Legal Importance

• The National Policy for Gender Equality for Women is a commitment that is enshrined in the National Development Plan of Colombia. It generates an obligation to ensure the comprehensive and interdependent human rights of women and gender equality.

(2) Social Importance

• According to the UN, the ability of women to access income, technology and paid work improves the welfare of children more than men’s access to the same resources.
• Reduction of poverty among women is key to the reduction of poverty in rural areas, reducing child mortality, and child nutrition and survival.

(3) Economic Importance

• Women in ICT enhance growth and competitiveness in the industry.
• According to the World Bank, economic growth is faster when the education and employment of men and women are equal.

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Happy Camper: A Female Graduate of IT Summer Camp in Bogotá


Ana Maria Quintero, age 15, talks about her experience as a young women interested in engineering.

 WATCH HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZox_xIC5_w&list=UUxOFmBkKTMddMLDXG81mLVA



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Training the Next Generation of Colombian Computer Engineers: Promising News for Women?

In the last ten years, the number of Colombian graduates in computer engineering has been steadily declining. Much like the rest of the world, Colombia´s IT needs are growing at a faster pace than its talent pool, and the country faces a looming deficit in qualified professionals to fill IT positions.

María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, addresses high school students at a technology and engineering summer camp.

María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, addresses high school students at a technology and engineering summer camp.

This problem is well-documented in the United States, where by 2018, only 61% of projected computing jobs could be filled by graduates with computing degrees. In Colombia, if the country´s IT sector continues to grow at 20% annually, it will face a deficit of 93,000 computer engineers, according to María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems.

Mejía, a graduate in computer engineering from Colombia´s prestigious Universidad de los Andes, shared this figure with Colombian high schools students at a recent summer camp event to encourage more young Colombians to enter engineering and IT.

The camp is offered by Universidad de Los Andes and is open to high school students from grades 9 – 12 who are interested in learning how to use and develop IT tools. Over the course of three weeks, students take workshops in programming, animation, robotics, app development and video game development.

The purpose of the camp is to expose students to the fun side of IT, help them understand what a career in IT could be like, and dispel myths about the profession being solitary or boring. Rubby Casallas, a professor of Computer and Systems Engineering at los Andes, explained that poorly managed mandatory computer classes in high schools turn students off and contribute to misconceptions and negative stigma. Students learn basic skills like Word and Excel from undertrained staff, who students neither relate to nor admire.

Parents photograph their children's graduation ceremony from the IT summer camp.

Parents photograph their children’s graduation ceremony from the IT summer camp.

The increasing shortage of IT professionals has prompted many to notice the disproportionately low number of women studying IT and entering the IT field. At Los Andes, only 4 out of 40 new Systems and Computer Engineering students were female last year. In Colombia, women make up about 4-5% of the IT industry.

Casallas, who helps run the nonprofit Mujeres en Computacion (Women in Computing), said that multinational tech companies like Microsoft and Intel are taking the most interest in this gender imbalance, because they see a potential talent pool. Although their incentive isn’t feminism, it’s practical, they are nonetheless leading the charge in developing female talent for engineering.

Microsoft partnered with Mujeres en Computacion to conduct a study of why so few females are entering IT in Colombia. The Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies (headed by Mejía) and Los Andes are also working to boost the low numbers of women entering IT careers, through initiatives like the summer camp.

Ana Maria, age 15, demonstrates the digital apps she developed and robot she programmed during her 3 weeks at the camp.

Ana Maria, age 15, demonstrates the digital apps she and her teammates developed during her 3 weeks at the camp. The app uses Google maps and streetview to help users find the nearest hamburger.

At the 2014 camp, 7 graduates were female and 15 were male. This ratio among high school students is far better than the ratio for college students, which could bode well for the future of gender balance in IT.

Rubby also recognized that gender is not the only important barrier to IT positions—so is social class. In Colombia, social class is organized into 6 strata, 6 being the wealthiest. Nearly all students who attend Universidad de los Andes are from strata 5 and 6, as were all of the participants in the summer camp. Participants paid $400 for 3 weeks of instruction. However, cost is not likely the only barrier—access and exposure to the opportunity, free time, transportation and parental involvement are only some of the other class-related factors that usher some students into opportunities like the camp, and leave others uninvolved.


Ana Maria shows family and friends the robot she and her team created and programmed to dance to music.

Ana Maria shows family and friends the robot she and her team created and programmed to dance to music.



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Food for Thought: What Happens When Technology is Designed by Men?

In doing research on the importance of women in the design and development of technology, I came across the following articles about what happens when technology  is designed by men:

We get smart phones that only men can use one-handed (https://medium.com/technology-and-society/its-a-mans-phone-a26c6bee1b69) and catalogs full of gadgets that, for women, are centered around beauty (http://www.cio.com/article/2442354/it-organization/why-do-women-hate-it–because-most-technology-products-are-designed-for-men-.html).

Just one small part of the puzzle…

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