The world has changed considerably in the past few decades, thanks in large part to the development of the internet and other new information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as personal computers, tablets and mobile phones.
While these innovations have had a significant and positive effect in many people’s lives, that’s only one side of the story. According to Rationales and Recommendations for Gender-Equal Digital Skills and Education, a new policy paper by the EQUALS Skills Coalition, the Information Age has disproportionately left behind women.
The disparity in skills (and access and leadership) in tech is both a cause and consequence of already existing gender inequalities. Research from around the world indicates that there are several (and intersecting) reasons why women and girls aren’t benefiting from these advancements. These may include “gatekeeping” by men and boys regarding who is able to access ICTs, lower levels of income which prevent women and girls from purchasing software or hardware needed to participate in digital activities, and stereotypes about women’s roles and abilities. As a result, in 2017, the gap in internet penetration between men and women was an average of 11.6 per cent worldwide and as high as 32.9 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, a slight increase from 2013.
Why the digital divide hurts us all
The consequences of the gender digital divide are complex. Between primary and secondary school, girls lose confidence in their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and are consequently less likely to pursue ICT-related studies in high school and university than their male peers. In the European Union, for example, men are three times more likely to graduate from university with ICT degrees than women.
The gap between male and female university graduates translates into the labour market. Worldwide, women make up less than a quarter of those working in the digital sector, a number that falls below 20 per cent the higher you go up the leadership chain.
Even for those who don’t go into careers in tech, the digital divide still affects women and girls, and society at large. The new publication argues that today, “the ability to leverage digital technology is increasingly indispensable to an individual’s well-being, on the same plane of necessity as numeracy and literacy”. Indeed, lower levels of digital literacy can mean less access to information relating to health care, political participation, job seeking and web-based learning activities. Wider society is also loses out by excluding women from ICT: tech companies lose out on profits that could be generated by women, and everyone loses out on women and girls’ potential innovations.
Doom and Gloom?
Despite the somewhat grim picture painted here, gender equality in digital spaces doesn’t have to be out of reach. The report suggests concrete steps that governments (and private companies) can take; such as establishing quotas, making ICT a core requirement of formal education and creating hubs where women can safely access and learn about new technologies.
Download the report here.
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash.