Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web once said: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone…is an essential aspect.” However, since its creation, a gender-based digital divide representing those with and those without access to information technology, has emerged hindering global growth and prosperity.

According to McKinsey & Company, the majority of the three billion people who remain offline are women. In addition, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, believes the intricate relationship between poverty and gender is responsible for as much as 80% of the population, the majority of which are women, remaining offline in some developing countries. For instance, in poor urban areas such as Lagos, Nairobi, Jakarta and Bogotá, women are 50% less likely than men to be online and 30-50% less likely to use the internet for economic and political empowerment. The report cites high costs, a lack of digital knowledge, scarcity of relevant content and barriers to the freedom of women to speak both freely and privately online as the root-cause of the gender digital divide. 

So how can the gender digital divide be addressed, bringing these women online and able to access a new world of information? The EQUALS Research Group, led by the United Nations University (UNU), which puts structural issues and core concerns that women and girls face online at the centre of efforts to understand the gender digital divide, found that addressing equality in ICT access involves more than ensuring availability of devices. Instead, closing the gap hinges on challenging cultural barriers that relate to how ICT is both accessed and utilised. Consequently, bridging the gender digital divide can only happen by ensuring that women and girls have basic access to the internet and digital devices, providing training in order to develop the skills needed to technology, and actively boosting the numbers of women in ICT leadership positions to act as decision makers, advocates and mentors in championing digital gender equality. 

However, the greatest impact in narrowing the divide could be made by supportive government-level policy. The Digital Gender Divide Audit, examines governmental policy efforts and progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets on women and technology across ten developing countries. Its findings are disappointing as they suggest that the 17 governments studied, including Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and Uganda are not doing nearly enough to meet targets by 2030. Consequently, without a major escalation of policy effort and investment, the benefits of technological change driven by the fourth industrial revolution will be enjoyed primarily by men and gender inequality will be exacerbated, not reduced. 

As a step forward in this regard, the UN recommends that countries committed to achieving the 2030 SDG relating to closing the digital gender divide using the ‘REACT’ framework. It recommends government policy should include the following elements:

  1. Rights
    • Digital rights should be enshrined into law.
    • Efforts should be made to protect and enhance women’s online rights and privacy.
    • Training and resources should be provided to fight online gender-based violence.
  2. Education
    • Incorporate digital skills training into primary and secondary school curricula and ensure that women have equal access to tertiary education opportunities.
  3. Access
    • Achieve the Alliance for Affordable Internet “1 for 2” affordability target to enable more women to connect.
    • Develop more public access solutions to offer free or subsidised internet access for those unable to afford it.
    • Create options for subsidised basic data allowance focused on women.
  4. Content
    • Prioritise local language content, data, information, and services that empower women.
    • Audit government websites to assess their gender relevance.
  5. Targets
    • Adopt concrete ICT gender equity targets, backed by adequate budget.
    • Collect ICT data disaggregated by gender, income, and location.
    • Develop new indicators to measure the impact of ICT on women.

By actively closing the gender digital divide, women can be empowered in all areas their lives, helping to improve their economic and social surroundings. Whilst the digital divide is the result of complexities relating to the speed in which technology has evolved compared to cultural factors, action must be taken to even the playing field. In allowing the gender digital divide to continue, communities and economies are missing out on the impact that women with access to the internet could have. In a world driven by technological change and advancement, it is vital that all corners of society are able to enjoy the benefits the digital age presents. No community or individual should be left behind in a world where information equals prosperity. 

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