The rapid growth of the Internet and digital technology throughout the world has opened global communication. Digital technology has spread education, information, and culture to people living in developing countries, allowing for unforeseen progress. However, there is an unspoken group of people who are unable to access these resources – women. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that women in developing countries are almost 25 percent less likely to be online than their male counterparts. In the report, USAID said the gap is due to “barriers such as cost, network coverage, security and harassment, trust and technical literacy.” The gap widens in rapidly developing economies. An Intel study entitled “Women and the Web” found that in sub-Saharan Africa the gap is 45 percent, 35 percent in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and 30 percent in parts of Europe and Central Asia. This gap inhibits women’s ability to fully connect with others around the world, missing out on opportunities to concur poverty, gender inequality, and political instability.
Bridging this gap would help women on an individual level and enhance the global economy. USAID found that “70 percent of women consider the Internet liberating and 85 percent say it provides more freedom.” Also, between 77 to 84 percent of women reported using the Internet for educational purposes. The report also found that if an additional 600 million women went online in the next three years, Global Domestic Product (GDP) could be boosted by up to $18 billion across 144 developing countries. The socioeconomic benefits of Internet access could help bring millions of struggling women out of the extreme poverty that disproportionately affects them.
The problem with overcoming the digital gender gap stems from four barriers, outlined in a report written by McKinsey & Company. These barriers are incentives, low incomes and affordability, user capability, and infrastructure. While many citizens in developed countries could easily identify the incentives the Internet provides, there is still a large amount of the world’s female population who face cultural and social disapproval for going online. This social stigma oftentimes creates a society where the perceived social consequences of going online outweigh the potential benefits. Limited Internet freedom in more conservative countries that utilize censorship, like China and North Korea, can also take away any benefits the Internet typically provides such as online payment and banking systems or research databases.
As women are disproportionately affected by poverty globally, they are at an even greater disadvantage when Internet access is costly in rural areas. For example, in Bangladesh the cost of simply setting up the tools to access the Internet in a household could feed a family for a year. As a result of this inaccessibility, women often lack digital literacy, or in some cases, are not literate at all. A UNESCO study found that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adult population is female. This illiteracy hinders women’s potential user capability. Finally, many developing countries lack a basic level of infrastructure needed for complete Internet usage. Women living in rural areas are often less likely to have access to a nearby urban area than men because of their domestic household roles.
Currently, this obscure issue is being tackled from the angles of increasing global Internet access, and encouraging female STEM education, but not specifically combatting the digital gender gap that is an overlap of the two issues. For example, the NGO, Project Isizwe, set a goal in 2015 to bring free wifi to the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Another example is the U.S. based non-profit, Women Who Code, which is a global organization dedicated to connecting women who aspire towards STEM careers. These types of organizations are great for empowering women who already have access to digital technologies, or for extending access to the internet to women who already understand the incentives of going online. However, for women facing social stigma, censorship, and even online harassment, these non-profits are unable to help.
An advocacy group called the Women’s Media Center said, “Women around the world report being bombarded with aggressive, often sexualize hate speech online.” Freedom House reported that the both women and the LGBT community are the two groups who are both the most underrepresented online and harassed for their online presence. This harassment has resulted in a kind of “self-censorship” where women feel that using the Internet is not only not beneficial, but unsafe. To truly combat the digital gender gap, the international community must not only focus on increasing Internet access and ability for women but teach women that the online world can be a source of empowerment and progress. NGOs and democratic governments should teach women how to access the Internet in more private and anonymous ways if they fear retaliation. For example, educational projects similar to Women Who Code should incorporate lessons on how to handle cyber threats or other online harassment. They should also encourage using digital technology for social change. Using a public diplomacy angle, successful bloggers, YouTube stars, or other women who have used the Internet to advocate for could make a video campaign. These videos could explain how they deal with online harassment and continue to benefit from digital technology. Videos in the campaign could be seen throughout the world, and programs like Project Isizwe could encourage women and men alike to watch the videos when they first get access to the Internet. Through empowering women to connect with other women around the world who may live in a completely different patriarchal culture, the Internet can be used as a tool in its own expansion.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.