The gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality, warned United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York recently.
While the world is swept up in the race of digital transformations and developments, the digital divide is growing, mirroring the deeply ingrained inequalities sustained by a patriarchal society.
Findings from recent reports suggest the gender gap may widen even more as a result of the digital divide, possibly jeopardising the progress made. For instance, Guterres said that technology today is based on incomplete data and badly designed algorithms which, instead of presenting facts and addressing bias, are digitising and amplifying sexism with deadly consequences. In the Asia-Pacific region, India has the widest gender gap of over 40% with a mere one-third of its internet users identifying as women, according to the 2022 Oxfam report.
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The growing digital divide is further reducing women’s opportunities for advancement in India and worldwide. Currently, 90% of jobs worldwide have a digital connect and more than 50% of the world’s women are offline, according to a UNICEF report in 2021.
A simple calculation shows that rapidly adopting digitization without addressing the inherent socioeconomic inequalities creates an imbalance and the advancements further increase exclusion. For instance, in a male-dominated tech industry, algorithms – the foundation of programming — are based on one gender’s knowledge, skills, views, and mindsets which could potentially make them biased.
The talks about addressing the gender digital divide remain elusive because an overwhelming number of people who are affected by it don’t have access to discussion or the technology. More than 390 million adult women in developing countries do not own mobile phones—a basic communication need in today’s world.
In India, digital technologies remain limited to largely male, urban, upper caste and upper-class households and individuals and only 1% of the Scheduled Tribes and 2% of the Scheduled Castes (SC) have a laptop, according to the 2022 Oxfam report.
Moreover, women are likely to use mobile and internet differently compared to men. For instance, they are often limited to less expensive and sophisticated handsets with a smaller range of services, according to the Oxfam report. A lack of financial stability can impose restrictions on access to the digital world which further limits employment opportunities and act as a barrier to workforce participation.
“The growing inequality based on caste, religion, gender, class, and geographic location also gets replicated in the digital space. People without devices and the Internet get further marginalised due to difficulties in accessing education, health, and public services. This vicious cycle of inequality needs to stop,” Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said in a press statement.
Socioeconomic factors such as gendered social norms, affordability, location, and digital literacy further determine digital access. For instance, practices such as barring girls and women from using mobile phones, labelling them as ‘immoral’ or extensively dictating their digital access through social norms lens can lead to lower inclusion of women in the digital revolution, further pushing them to the periphery.
What are the main barriers?
Access remains an important barrier for girls and women. Emphasising the importance of digital access in a technology-driven world, the UNICEF report said digital access can “empower women and girls, help expand their sense of self in the world, increase civic engagement, and raise awareness of their rights.”
Low levels of infrastructure as well as network quality and coverage further affect access for women and girls, disproportionately. In southeast Asia, women are more likely than men to borrow or share mobile phones and are rarely primary owners. Denying access is a way of ensuring they don’t have freedom or agency, keeping them shackled to decaying gendered roles. Increased access comes with more opportunities for learning and skill development, and in turn, career advancements and financial independence.
Digital literacy is another factor that limits women’s and girls’ digital adoption. According to the UNICEF report, inequality in education plays a major role in creating the gender digital divide. Furthermore, the gender gap is growing as technology is becoming more advanced, a 2019 UNESCO report noted. When girls and women don’t have regular access, they are unable to become familiar with the technology and the constant advancements, and are often forced into dependency.
Furthermore, digital literacy limitations are also related to the lack of digital products and services designed for women and girls, according to the UNICEF report. When a field is male-dominated, the resulting products are one-dimensional and exclusionary. Furthermore, the content and solutions are also by male users for male users.
Online safety is a major factor impacting women’s and girls’ digital presence and access. The UNICEF report shows that 52% of young women globally have experienced some form of digital harm, and 87% believe the problem is getting worse. Social media, specifically, is considered an unsafe place with 68% of online abuse of women and girls taking place on these platforms.
A Web Foundation survey found 35% of young women and girls reported that the online sharing of private, intimate images and videos without their consent was their top concern about using the Internet.
When women and girls encounter online harassment or abuse, they tend to feel a sense of helplessness, a reflection of how they are made to feel in the physical world. The Web Foundation found that 25% of young women and girls who are harassed online do nothing about it, citing reasons such as “it’s not worth reporting” and “authorities don’t care.” There is also the approach of further victimizing the victim, where women and girls tend to lose digital access when they report such incidents.
While these are identified as the main barriers by the UNICEF report, it is important to look at them not as independent factors but as those correlated with socioeconomic inequalities for a solution-focused approach.
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Digital access also needs to be looked at through the lens of the urban-rural divide. Only 31% of the rural population uses the Internet compared to 67% of the urban population, according to the 2022 Oxfam report.
Considering these factors, adopting an action-focused, intersectional approach and providing more than on-paper support is important. According to the Oxfam report, some of the basic steps towards addressing the digital divide are availability, affordability, and conducting digital literacy camps. However, without addressing the social factors driving inequality, any approach will not drive significant change.