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What is the Gender Digital Divide?

Depending on where you come from or where you lived in your life, you might be more or less aware of the existence of a gender digital divide. Here in Switzerland, it is very difficult to gauge it as all men and women, with not much distinction, appear to have the same access to and skills for the use of digital devices though even this is likely to vary according to socioeconomic group. According to ITU’s data, as of 2019, 95.1% of men and 91.3% of women had access to the Internet in Switzerland.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

As you can see, even in one of the richest countries of the world, there is a gender bias in the use of and access to the Internet. The situation is even worse in other parts of the world. First of all, there exists a prominent digital divide between the so-called Developed and Developing World, in the sense that there is a big gap in the access and use of digital technologies when countries in these categories are compared. According to ITU, while the Internet penetration rate is around 87% in Developed countries, Developing countries only reach around 52% and Least Developed countries (LDCs) have an even lower penetration rate of only around 24%. While this gap was already a notable problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, it has now reached even more huge proportions. The lack of access to the Internet, now, more than ever before also meant lack of access to education, health-care, an ability to work, and gain income.

Nevertheless, the digital divide does not only play alon

g the Developing-Developed axis, but also along other social characters like gender. Women are less likely than men to have access to a smartphone or computer and, even when they do have it, they have not been afforded with the skills (or the confidence, as we will see) to use them independently. Traditional patriarchal structures and socio-cultural norms dominated by a heteronormative masculinity hinder women from being part of those social structures in which they also live themselves. Being the main group burdened with unpaid labour, the economic barriers prevent them from being able to afford digital devices. The use of which is difficult given the education access barrier existing for young girls. These power structures pose women in the condition of being awarded with less means and opportunities for their own empowerment, which unfortunately they need to strive for.

The gender digital gap is smaller in Europe and North America, with some countries displaying trends where more women than men have access to the Internet, however it widens in Developing countries. Overall, across the world, there is a relative internet user gender gap of 17%. However the gender digital gap is not only limited to access but is also concerned with obstacles to the use of the Internet.

How is this possible?

The reasons behind the existence of a gender digital divide are as simple as complex, I feel.

First, especially where there is already lower availability of smartphones and computers, the girls and women in the house are more often than not the last ones to be granted access to them. Social norms and stereotypes prevent, on one side, the women and girls themselves from becoming interested in technology, and, on the other side, automatically place the control over technologies in the hands of the father or similar figure in the household. Archaic socially constructed relationships to disciplines such as technology and science mean that they are often - globally - dangerously and incorrectly conceived as and related with the so-called “masculine” concepts of logical thinking, rationality, and “hard-sciences”, while this same construction means that women are kept outside of these spheres. Falsely, they are often considered to be more apt to relational learning, caring activities and roles, and “soft-sciences”. In addition, girls are, often from a young age, afforded less time to indulge in exciting and stimulating aspects of the tech world such as video games or computers as they are often co-opted to activities such as “taking care of the house” more than their male counterparts. And, on a level of design, a lot of the content available on the Internet is often not designed for women or girls since it is produced mainly by men, who do not include a gender awareness in their work.

Coming closer to what can be considered the Swiss context, the gender digital divide does not only present itself in terms of access but also in terms of skills and independent use.

As a very concrete example from my very own house, while my mother’s job sees her working on her laptop with different softwares and applying different digital skills more often than my father, she still refuses to learn how to properly use our “new” TV remote as she states that she is “not good with technology”. Almost the same as my grandmother, who was very anxious about trying to use a smartphone because “it is not for me”, ended up learning much faster than my grandfather. Based on the normative dichotomous associations that we are taught from a very young age between women-relations/caring and men-rationality/building, we (women and girls, but also whoever distances themselves from normative masculinity roles) are suggested that technology is not for us.

These social processes forge a vicious circle: Since girls and women usually have less access to technology, they also have less opportunities to develop the necessary skills to use them, or are discouraged from it.

As a consequence, independent use is also limited as they need to rely on someone else for accessing the Internet. The same way my grandmother needed my grandfather’s help for using her smartphone in the beginning. In addition, women with limited digital skills are more exposed to cyberviolence or harassment. Bringing parents, for example, to control their daughter’s use of smartphones more than their sons’ as they believe the internet to be a more dangerous place for girls than for boys, like the real world in general, dare we say? However, by stopping daughters from using technology, the true origin of the issue of the gender digital divide is sorely misplaced, reproducing great problems.

As summarised by Antonio and Tuffley (2014), the barriers to women access to the Internet in developing countries fall under four categories:

  • Exclusion from technology education and design. The IT sector is not very “women-friendly”, rooted in masculine stereotypes and practises, it is difficult to attract women to it. However, their absence from the designing and content creation processes leads to having content that is often inaccessible or irrelevant for women.

  • Limited free time. Computers and technology are a leisure activity, a hobby, and women usually have less free time as main care-takers of the family and house.

  • Gender stereotypes and social norms favouring men.

  • Financial or institutional constraints that hinder women from buying technology or being able to access it.

While the differences between the use of technology by women in different parts of the world also differs greatly, the gender digital gap is still present almost everywhere. Having independent and free access to a smartphone or computer is not something to be taken for granted. Now more than ever, many of us conduct so many activities through the Internet that we tend to forget how technology changed the world. Possessing a phone is a way of protecting oneself, remaining in contact with distant family and relatives, helping us in our activity as entrepreneurs, providing education, health-care, employment, and more. Though, of course, the harms that these devices can be a conduit for demand better regulation, too. There are so many examples of brilliant women who leveraged technology for their own empowerment that it is clear we must urgently close the gender digital gap so that all women, and all people can be similarly empowered. As technology becomes more and more important for accessing basic services, the existence of a gender digital gap exacerbates already existing differences between women and men in income, health, and education. Thus, we need to close the gender digital divide!

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This blog is written by the Graduate Institute, Geneva’s YPWG group, or those invited to write for the blog by the YPWG. Content is not reviewed by, and is independent from the central EQUALS-EU project.

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