Digital transformation is bringing new opportunities to economies, but its benefits are not currently equally balanced within society. The current scenario is so variable and uncertain that the Institute for the Future has predicted that around 85% of the jobs that will exist by 2030 have not been even invented yet (Institute for the Future [IFTF], 2017). As a radical change in such a short period of time, this transformation has provoked different types of gaps. While digital technologies are constantly expanding and evolving, generational, geographical, social and gender divides emerge due to different access to digital communication devices and tools (Maryville University, 2019). All these gaps are interconnected and, as in the offline world, rooted gender inequalities are being replicated in similar ways in the digital world.
The gender digital divide refers to the inequalities between men and women in terms of access and use of digital technologies and, therefore, to the arising perceived benefits. For example, women tend to pursue fewer STEM and ICTs careers, to use digital tools less frequently and to have less practice in creating digital content (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2018). This divide is composed of a set of barriers that prevent women from fully using technology in their lives. The gender gap has many roots, from uneven access and affordability to lack of education, safety concerns and inherent social norms. All these roots are interconnected and each one forms a gap in itself.
To close this divide, we need to understand the barriers and create tailored solutions to address each one of them. The solution is, in fact, a set of solutions, requiring a strong intersectional approach and cooperation, with women placed at the centre of the designing and implementation stages. It starts with awareness of gender stereotypes and how they unfold in the online world as well. A gender-inclusive approach, then, means advocating for positive measures that further all gender equality, both offline and online (Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project [HRBDT], n.d.).
To close the gender divide in a comprehensive way, we propose the following set of solutions, which need to be undertaken at different levels of society. We encourage individuals and organisations alike to get acquainted with these targeted solutions, as well as to reflect and question their current practices:
- Discuss the limiting norms and beliefs which restrict women’s Internet use
- Invest in infrastructures and connectivity to increase women’s access to digital devices
- Include digital literacy training from an early age
- Measure the gender digital divide in a systematic way
- Reduce threats that women face online
- Design more digital products for women
1. Start at the roots: discuss the limiting norms and beliefs which restrict women’s Internet use
At the core of the gender digital divide stand the limiting norms and beliefs that have historically affected women. On many occasions, the Internet is perceived as an unsafe place for women, and so male family members or community members can act as gatekeepers who control access and use of digital technologies for women and girls. For example, some rural communities in northern India have banned women’s mobile phone use (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.). These risk perceptions restrict the ways that women use digital technology, not only because of their own fears but also responding to other people’s concerns. Young women tend to self-monitor their online behaviour as they are more likely to receive criticism because of it (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.).
These underlying norms that generate gender power inequities demand working together with gatekeepers to understand the root of their distrust and directly address those fears (NetHope, n.d.).
Women spend, on average, 2.6 times more time than men on unpaid domestic work and childcare. This directly restricts the time they can spend on paid work or education. Actions aimed to challenge this type of gender stereotype, such as measures fostering gender-neutral parental leave, help address behaviours deeply embedded in society (OECD, 2018). Other examples that foster women’s participation in digital studies are programs such as ReDI School of Digital Integration’s Digital Literacy Program, designed to provide a supportive environment for women to facilitate their best learning experience. Aside from providing laptops to their female students, they also offer childcare services on-site while the lessons are delivered.
Societies also need to promote women in the technology sector, while including them in decision-making positions (Davaki, 2018), as inherent gender social norms need both effective positive actions and time to change. Additionally, community engagement initiatives are key to challenging gender stereotypes and cultural barriers that limit women’s access to digital tools and services (Ford, 2021).
2. Invest in infrastructures and connectivity to increase women’s access to digital devices
Access and affordability are two key factors when it comes to the gender digital divide. Globally, women have less access than men to digital technology and the Internet. Men are 21% more likely than women to have access to the Internet, and on average this comparison rises to 52% in the least developed countries (Moore Aoki, 2022). Women have lower levels of income (for varied reasons that go from the wage gap to unequal division of unpaid work), and so, they go online less frequently. While infrastructure and network coverage limitations in rural areas should affect men and women alike, this physical inaccessibility is deepened by the power inequalities that shape women’s lives. In some countries, men still largely control women’s private access to the Internet (HRBDT, n.d.).
Globally, we need to invest in digital infrastructure, with a focus on developing countries, which will in turn increase connectivity for everyone – including women. Public access policies should ensure that public gathering spaces such as libraries and community centres always have Internet access. But infrastructure alone will not bridge the digital divide. Digital tools and services also need to be affordable for women. Free-of-charge courses are the biggest entry point to online learning, connecting women with technology at no cost to them (Diop, 2022).
3. Include digital literacy training from an early age
Aside from having affordable access to digital technologies, women all over the world need to have the knowledge and resources to translate this access into effective use (HRBDT, n.d.). This leads us to the next cause of the digital gender divide: uneven digital literacy. Unbalanced access to digital technologies leads to uneven digital literacy, as women overall spend less time familiarising themselves with digital devices. As technologies become more and more sophisticated, this inequality keeps on amplifying (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.).
To counter this tendency, women need digital trainings that consider gender barriers starting from their design, but also family members need to develop digital literacy skills in order to understand the value behind women’s digital adoption, rather than acting as gatekeepers. Digital literacy can empower women, help develop their self-consciousness in the online world, raise their confidence to interact with technology and increase their participation in public spheres (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.).
Education policies with digital skills-related training should be included in primary-level schooling so that both girls and boys are reached at an early age. Teachers can, for example, use gender-neutral textbooks that can facilitate girls’ integration into the digital world (OECD, 2018). Educational policies that encourage female enrolment in STEM studies are also a helpful tool for facilitating women’s equal digital access as, currently, women are under-represented in ICT jobs and top management positions. By creating new spaces for women, new social norms will follow, and women can naturally become technologists and ICT trainers (NetHope, n.d.).
4. Measure the gender digital divide in a systematic way
Action requires measurement as well: a systematic collection of data that considers gender-related dimensions, aimed at identifying priorities and monitoring results (OECD, 2018). Indicators of this sort can provide a more concrete picture of the gender digital divide and of the effectiveness of the implemented policies to address it (NetHope, n.d.). For example, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre developed the EU framework DigComp, measuring citizens’ digital competencies in a unified approach to generate adequate policy measures.
5. Reduce threats that women face online
Limitations in digital literacy make women more vulnerable to online risks than men. Globally, 52% of young women have experienced some form of digital harm, such as cyberbullying, harassment, unsolicited sexual content, and data security and privacy risks (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.). Since affected women have little information or knowledge about staying safe online, these types of hostile online experiences negatively correlate to further fears and usage limitations. Online experiences are critical for people’s development in today’s digital world, so we need to design safe online solutions with a gender perspective.
For doing so, governments and policymakers should work with organisations that represent women and girls to ensure that these voices are taken into consideration when developing legal frameworks that offer protection and online safeguarding to all people (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.).
In this sense, the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence is a key milestone towards addressing this problem, as it proposes legal definitions and action points for gender-based violence committed online and facilitated by technology (Council of Europe, 2021). In both developed and developing countries, safe access to technology is fundamental for women to stay connected, share information and offer support (OECD, 2018). Safer and more affordable access to digital technologies is, then, very important, as women in particular and users overall learn how to identify online misinformation to guard themselves against becoming cyber victims.
6. Design more digital products for women
Lower levels of digital literacy among women are also related to a lack of digital products specifically designed for them. As in the physical world, products in the online world are mostly developed by male users; therefore, women’s online behaviours, and therefore content relevant to their needs, come second in the equation. This often leads to a lack of interest in digital products, services or content, as women tend not to feel represented (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.). For example, digital literacy programs should adapt their content to women’s practical needs, using flexible training formats and highlighting small wins to encourage students to continue. Women need to be put at the centre of the design process of digital products, services and programs, so that these meet their digital realities and needs (Tyers-Chowdhury & Binder, n.d.). Women must lead technology, so they feel empowered to join the digital world on their own terms and for their own benefit. Pathways are dynamic, and recognising the plurality of digital solutions is vital to move forward with including women and girls in ICT (Davaki, 2018).
The gender digital divide requires a set of policies addressing each of these barriers, specifically as they are complementary and interrelated to one another. Access-related policies need to be combined with digital literacy initiatives aimed at empowering women, in order for them to gain confidence in using digital technologies. Initiatives promoting tools and ways to stay safely online should be developed, while focusing on the design and content of digital products that keep women’s needs and aspirations at the centre. In a comprehensive way, all these initiatives can only be effective if they also address the many underlying biases and stereotypes which constrain women’s further participation in digital contexts (OECD, 2018).
Acting now to reverse the gender digital divide will give rise to a new generation of girls with more equal access to digital opportunities. As with other societal gaps, empowering women in the digital era demands a coordinated policy action and engagement between all the stakeholders involved. Concrete policy actions are required in order to strengthen gender equality, foster women’s full inclusion in the digital economy, and address gender norms that are currently limiting their participation (OECD, 2018). Public and private partnerships are needed to identify and further develop the competencies required for the labour market in the digital era, while women users themselves should design solutions that can overcome these identified barriers. Development programmes need to be holistic and assessed from a gender perspective; that is why policy-makers must work closely with women’s movements to hear their everyday realities (Davaki, 2018).
Closing the gender digital gap will undoubtedly benefit women, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Greater inclusion of women in the digital economy brings diversity, which in turn accompanies social and economic value (OECD, 2018). It allows stronger growth for societies, with more human capital and talent employed, and where female contributions have a positive impact on development (Davaki, 2018). To fully seize the opportunities that digital transformation produces, we need to make sure that digital technologies are used as an enabler for every group within society, therefore truly constructing a more inclusive world.
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