Digital Divide

The Digital Divide is Real—And It’s Sexist

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of November 11-15, 2021

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

For many, the digital divide is the gap between who has access to broadband infrastructure or who does not. But a truer definition is the gap between who’s actually using our most powerful communications tools and who is not. Using this broader measure and examining use around the world, we see that women are being left offline. And this gender gap costs everyone.

This week, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global coalition working to drive down the cost of internet access in low- and middle-income countries, released The Costs of Exclusion: Economic Consequences of the Digital Gender Gap. The findings are troubling to say the least:

  • By the latest estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a majority of women in the world (52%) have never used the internet. Estimates for Africa put the gender ratio at nearly three-to-two in favor of men over women.
  • Men are 21% more likely to be online than women globally, rising to 52% in the least developed countries. 
  • In the 32 countries studied, just over a third of women were connected to the internet compared to almost half of men.
  • Since 2011, the gender gap has only dropped half a percentage point, from 30.9% to 30.4%.

Barriers to Adoption

Various barriers prevent women and girls from accessing the internet and participating online, including unaffordable devices and service, inequalities in education and digital skills, social norms that discourage women and girls from being online, and fears around privacy, safety, and security.

Affordability: The cost of connectivity keeps women offline. Handset cost remains one of the most frequently cited reasons among mobile phone users in low- and middle-income countries for not using the internet. Beyond handsets, the cost of data negatively limits how much 25% of respondents use the internet in three low- and middle-income countries.

Wage Gaps: Gender pay gaps make the problem of the cost of connectivity worse for women. In a 2021 survey of device costs in 187 countries around the world, the cheapest new smartphone costs $104 on average. As a fraction of the average monthly income, this is roughly one-quarter. However, in the context of the global gender wage gap, where women globally earn around 77 cents for each dollar a man earns, these costs are, on average, higher for women as a percentage of their income. By that ratio, if a man could pay for a smartphone on one month’s wages, a woman would need to work an extra ten days to afford the same device.

Device Gaps: In part because of cost, women globally have lower rates of device ownership. These lower rates of device ownership replicate into lower rates of meaningful connectivity (that is, having internet access of sufficient quality to enable someone to work, live, and participate in the online world). 

Privacy/Security: Women, generally, also hold higher fears around online privacy and security. In nationally representative surveys in Colombia, Ghana, and Uganda, women more frequently reported being afraid about personal data privacy at the same time as they reported lower rates of creating content online. In the study’s focus groups in Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh, women remarked on the fear of being manipulated or targeted because of what they posted on social media. In their own eyes, the internet is not a safe place for women.

Literacy and Skills: Educational gaps by gender also keep women offline. Along with handset cost, literacy and skills are one of the two most common barriers to mobile internet use. As the literacy gap between men and women in the world persists (90% of adult men, compared to only 83% of adult women as of 2019), this gap replicates itself in the digital world. Differences in mean years of schooling also replicate into lower access to digital skill-building in an educational context. Together, the educational disadvantages against girls become digital divides for women.

The accumulation of these individual barriers that discourage women from using the internet – each a small manifestation of the digital gender gap — has a cumulative impact on the content that women see and the experiences they have online. At the same time, women report facing greater family and social pressures against internet use.

Together, the financial, technical, safety, and educational gaps faced by women on an individual basis accumulate into a social norm that reinforces the myth that “access to technology and the internet by women is … immoral, inappropriate, or unnecessary.” This myth discourages women and girls from participating in the online world, defers the potential benefits to their own education, health, or wellbeing, and hinders the potential cultural and economic benefits of the greater digital inclusion of women and girls throughout the world.

In the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of new internet users were male. This began to change about a decade later as the internet became more ubiquitous throughout the world. Between 2011 and 2020, the share of women connected to the internet rose from 12.2% to 34.3%. Despite this increase, it wasn’t substantial enough for women to catch up with their male counterparts.

The Costs of Exclusion

Beyond the social cost, excluding women from the digital economy takes a significant economic toll on low and lower-middle income countries (LLMICs). 

The Alliance for Affordable Internet estimates that, over the last decade, LLMICs have lost a total of $1 trillion USD in gross domestic product (GDP) to the gender gap in internet use. Based on current tax-to-GDP ratios in these countries, this loss represents an estimated $24.7 billion in lost tax revenue in 2020, revenue that could be invested in education, health, housing, and transportation. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating toll on LLMICs and as their economies have contracted, the need for new, robust sources of economic productivity has rarely been greater. At the same time, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns throughout the world have shown how internet access is an essential lifeline for millions. Access has enabled economic activity in helping suppliers reach new markets, enabling consumers to purchase essentials in the context of the pandemic; and it has facilitated digital payments. Since the pandemic has pushed more of the world online, the economic returns associated with connectivity have likely risen. The Alliance for Affordable Internet estimates that closing the gender gap offers billions in economic activity, but further analysis of the economic impact of Covid-19 on the digital world will offer a full picture of the consequences of not being connected during and after the pandemic.

Moreover, too often today, women who connect to the internet only benefit from a very limited connection. In many instances, women are only able to connect infrequently or are limited by a slow connection with minimal bandwidth. Where this is the case, users are not able to benefit from data-intensive online activities (e.g., video calling, online education, and telemedicine) and are unlikely to be able to reap all the economic benefits the internet can offer. Women that only benefit from a marginal connection to the internet are unlikely to reach their full potential—economic or personal.

Principles for Closing the Digital Gender Gap

Adopted in 2016 by attendees of the inaugural Africa Summit for Women and Girls in Technology, the REACT framework offers strong guiding principles for closing the digital gender gap: rights, education, access, content, and targets.

Rights: Protect and enhance everyone’s rights online.

  • Challenge gender norms that would curb a woman’s or a girl’s right to own a device, use the internet, and express herself.
  • Adopt adequate data protection laws that ensure users’ privacy is respected.
  • Update consumer protection laws to build confidence in the online marketplace.

Education: Use education to equip everyone – especially women – with the skills they need to access and use the web.

  • Close the educational gap and support the schooling of all children with free primary and secondary education.
  • Include digital skills within the curriculum to introduce new technologies.
  • Attract and retain women as teachers and professors in STEM fields, especially computer science.

Access: Deliver affordable—or free—access to an open web.

  • Reduce the cost of connectivity through policy strategies.
  • Adopt, regularly review, and update national broadband plans and universal access strategies/policies, including gender as part of its mandate.
  • Include gender and inclusivity as an evaluation criterion in public access projects and the operation of universal service and access funds.

Content: Ensure relevant and empowering content for women is available and used.

  • Support the creation of locally relevant content.
  • Prioritize the development of content in local languages and audiovisual content that reduces the need for literacy to participate in the digital economy.
  • Provide fair and free information to women and girls on topics important to them, including sexual and reproductive health, legal rights, and digital financial services.

Targets: Set and measure concrete gender-equity targets.

  • Set clear targets, including for indicators on meaningful connectivity, with gender-disaggregation within policies.
  • Regularly collect gender-disaggregated data through standard statistical practices to track progress and monitor any other emerging gender gaps.
  • Make targets and data publicly available for other stakeholders to engage and create accountability.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet estimates that if countries are able to break with the past and significantly close the gender gap in internet connectivity in the next few years, LLMICs will be able to generate over half a trillion dollars in additional gross domestic product (GDP) between 2021 and 2025. Conversely, if little changes during this time, the total loss of GDP between 2011 and 2025 among LLMICs due to the gender gap will surpass $1.5 trillion. This, as well as other equity benefits, is a powerful reason to close the digital gender gap.