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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