The Gender Digital Divide
June 29, 2018
At the end of the last century, the digital revolution ushered in technological advancements that most consumers would not want to live without. Information and communication technology (ICT), such as computers, cell phones and the Internet, have proliferated worldwide entering our homes, offices and classrooms.  However, while the expansion of this technology has been impressive, it has not been even. At both the national and global levels, access to ICT is still far from universal and its disparity reflects and exacerbates the inequalities that exist offline. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the Internet user gender gap was as high as 31% in some developing countries and 12% globally in 2016.  As ICT becomes increasingly important, those left behind face growing socioeconomic barriers. This is what is known as the digital divide. People unfamiliar or unable to access ICTs are disadvantaged when trying to enter higher paid jobs, join solidarity networks, utilize educational information and accrue cultural capital.
Global gender inequality is not immune to the effect of ICT. Rather, women’s limited access to resources and opportunities are reflected and exacerbated in the new digital landscape. The gender digital divide is a negative feedback loop wherein gender inequality informs unequal access to and use of ICT, and the subsequent growth in ICT deepens gender inequality. The net interaction between social inequality and digital inequality can be understood as a product of two factors: access and effective use. 
Access: In many low- and middle-income countries, as well as low-income regions, the high price of Internet access is one of the greatest barriers for women. Women are paid less and face an unequal dividend of paid and unpaid work. Women who head their households can find Internet to be an impossible expense; and women dependent on a male breadwinner may not have control over household finances at all. Access is also impeded by geographical location and poor infrastructure. While these circumstances are seemingly gender neutral, these confounding factors deepen the disparity along gendered lines. Women’s disproportionate responsibility for reproductive labor and safety concerns limit their ability to travel far from home. A rural-urban divide also exists across countries of all incomes, with high-income countries disadvantaging women in rural areas, and low- and middle-income countries disadvantaging the urban poor.  In countries with greater gender inequality, cultural norms may limit the ability for women to be seen in public, use ICT, and receive secondary education. 
Effective use: Even when women have affordable, unfettered and safe access to ICT, the digital divide persists. Women face obstacles to effectively use ICT because of the education and literacy gaps. These translate to lower technological skills, or a digital literacy gap. Women also face a lack of relatable content and are subject to gender-based violence on the Internet. Both contribute to deflating the apparent value of accessing the internet for women, which reduce their investment of time and resources in it. 
The gender digital divide is not a condition exclusive to low- and middle-income countries. A review of 20 years of research by a professor at Princeton University found that the digital divide spanned across all ages and international borders.  The study argues that the problem of varied attitudes and use of ICT is a result of the gendered socialization patterns that suggest computers to be a male experience. Computers are presented as toys for boy children, in effect planting the seeds of division at a young age. Later on in life, the gender digital divide continues to push less women to pursue degrees in IT and computer science, tracking them out of careers in the growing technology industry.  As a result, women are increasingly underrepresented in areas such as Silicon Valley. The percentage of women in computing jobs was just 25% in 2016 and down from 36% in 1990.  This in part due to the underlying implications that they are less competent than their male counterparts and simply do not belong.  
Given the pervasive nature of the gender digital divide, policy solutions to mitigate it must be comprehensive and multi-pronged. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) undertook the issue in 2016, with member states pledging to work towards alleviating the global gender and digital gaps by 2020.  Its relevant goals include: to “achieve universal affordable internet access,” to “implement policies to empower women through technology,” to “ensure equal access to basic services [and] appropriate new technology for all women and men.”  Some policy recommendations to achieve these targets, put forth by the World Wide Web Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing ICT disparities through policy, include:
- Implementing public education curricula that incorporates digital skills training in primary and secondary school, that promotes women’s access to tertiary education in technology-related fields.
- Building better infrastructure in locations with poor Internet connectivity.
- Developing public access solutions, such as city-wide Wi-Fi and public libraries.
- Legislating digital rights that protect women from gender-based violence that begins online.
- Auditing government websites for gender relevance; and
- Establishing a body to research and monitor ICT data, developing indicators and setting goals 
Ultimately, the digital space serves as yet another frontier in the fight for gender equality. With the increasing ubiquity of ICT in our everyday social and economic interactions, it is clear that digital gaps transcend from online into offline realities. And while the disparity in access to technology is a barrier, the technology itself is an opportunity. If the rate at which women became frequent users of digital technologies doubled, the workplace could reach gender parity by 2040 in developed countries and 2060 in developing countries – much earlier than current projections . As with all stories of gender inequality, holding women back holds us all back.
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