Global Internet use has increased significantly over the past 10 years — from 20.6% of the world online in 2007, to an estimated 47.1% in 2016. Though this growth is impressive and represents a positive trend overall, the reality is that growth in Internet uptake and use has been uneven — both between and within countries.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the global digital divide is the digital gender gap and unfortunately, new data reveals that this digital gender gap is growing wider. According to the ITU’s recently released 2016 Facts & Figures:
“The global Internet user gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016. The gap remains large in the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) — at 31%. In 2016, the regional gender gap is largest in Africa (23%) and smallest in the Americas (2%).”
Achieving the gender, ICT, and other targets laid out in the SDGs will require us to take immediate action to close this digital gender divide. To get started, it might help to unpack some data around the issue. Available ITU data shows the regions and countries that have the largest gender access gaps; To gain a clearer understanding of the nature of this gap, we dug a bit deeper into available ITU data on regional and national gender access gaps. In doing so, two noteworthy points emerged:
- There is an urban-rural divide related to the gender gap in Internet use. In rural areas, the gender gap is higher in high-income countries (9.4%, compared to 7.5% in low- and middle-income countries). This trend is somewhat reversed in urban areas, where the gap is slightly higher (at 6.6%) in low- and middle-income countries, than in high-income countries (6.3%). While this data on urban-rural Internet use is only available for 16 out of the 69 countries covered in the ITU’s dataset, these findings on the urban gap are consistent with other research. For example, the Web Foundation’s Women’s Rights Online research surveyed urban poor communities in ten low- and middle-income countries and found that women were nearly 50% less likely to access the Internet than men in the same communities.
- Age is also a factor in the digital gender gap. The digital gender gap increases as age increases, and is more significant in low- and middle-income countries. Among 15-24 year olds, the gender gap is 2.9% in low- and middle-income countries. However, there is a negative gap for this age group in high-income countries, where Internet use among women is slightly higher (by 0.5%) than men. The gender gap in Internet use grows among the 25-74 age group across all countries, but is higher again for low- and middle-income countries (7.7%) compared to high-income countries (3.5%). When we look at the age group 75 and above, the gender gap becomes significantly larger, with an average gap of 45.8% across all countries. Again, these findings are supported by the Women’s Rights Online research which also shows the gender gap increasing with age in urban poor communities.
Age and location are two important factors to consider when examining the nature of the digital gender gap, but they are far from the only issues impacting women’s access to and use of ICTs. Inequality in access to and use of technologies can also result from systemic and other sources of discrimination in society — patriarchal systems of power may restrict women’s access to technology directly or indirectly through the gender wage gap, unpaid work and care, uneven and unequal access to education, and the so-called “triple burden” (i.e., the view of a woman’s simultaneous responsibilities to her family, job, and community). In short, this means that policies that seek to improve Internet access and use that do not consider the underlying causes of gender inequality will fall short of closing the digital gender divide.
As we underscored in our 2015-16 Affordability Report, gender-responsive broadband plans and ICT policy-making are critical to address this issue. How can you work to ensure that the policies made in your country are gender-responsive?
- Make sure gender advocates and experts are involved in the development of broadband, ICT, and other policy — and that they are involved from the outset of this process.
- Establish time-bound targets to achieve gender equality in access and use, and ensure that sufficient money and resources are allocated to achieve these targets.
- Work with government, private sector, and civil society to invest in digital skills training for women and girls — make sure this education starts early (e.g., primary school) and that educational opportunities are available at all levels on subjects ranging from basic training to more advanced programming and design.
- Focus on public access solutions that will enable women and other populations that might not be able to afford even a seemingly affordable broadband connection to reap the benefits of online access, and make sure that gender-specific considerations are incorporated into these public access initiatives.
- Invest in the collection of gender disaggregated data. A lack of gender disaggregated data is a problem clearly illustrated here — the above analysis is limited to only some countries (and even fewer low- and middle-income countries). Without proper data, we cannot create effective policy and achieve national development goals.
We are currently undertaking a series of broadband policy surveys in over 50 low- and middle-income countries for the next edition of our Affordability Report. These surveys include an assessment of the extent to which countries are prioritising gender in their policy by examining each country’s broadband policies and regulations and whether they contain measures to improve gender equality in access and use (based on an indicator included in the Web Index). The results will guide our work with partners to develop action-oriented recommendations for closing the gender gap in Internet use and achieving universal access. Stay tuned!