The year-long theme for United Nations' International Day of the Girl is "Digital generation. Our generation." It is important to highlight that, worldwide, girls and women are still much less likely to receive an education than men and boys, and tech – or “digital poverty” (defined by Digital Poverty UK as lacking a suitable device to get online) – prevents 2.2 billion people below the age of 25 from accessing the internet. This also means that digital literacy, which the United Nations has recognised as part of the right to education, is undermined. How, during a pandemic where the internet is a lifeline for so many, can we bridge the gender digital divide and improve digital inclusion?
The world goes online – a digital revolution?
Particularly over the last 21 months the popularity of distance-learning and online learning has grown exponentially. However, these opportunities are limited to those with access to a computer and reliable internet, something which has a significantly higher impact on females. According to a 2020 research paper, women (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia) were significantly underrepresented in the online populations of Google and Facebook, two of the market leaders for online browsing.
A 2021 report from Lloyds Bank stated that, despite the pandemic forcing more people online, 29% of the UK – that is 14.9 million people – still had very low digital engagement (e.g. not using email or online banking) and 5% of the UK remains offline; with females making up a larger proportion of those with very low digital skills.
Where so many classes have been held online, women and girls are therefore missing out on accessing education.
Women are logging off, not logging on
According to a UNICEF report, the global gender gap in the use of internet is growing – not shrinking. This means fewer women and girls are accessing the internet than before – and far fewer than men. The gender gap (i.e. the difference between internet user rates for males and females) rose from 11% in 2013 to 17% in 2019. In the world's least developed countries, this widens to as much as 43%.
This lack of access also means that girls and women cannot fully, and equally, participate in the important social, cultural and economic conversations taking place online; missing the chance to speak out on issues affecting them. The growing gender gap in the use of internet will also, later down the line, widen the global gender pay gap too – meaning working women earn less than their male counterparts.
Facilitating better access to the internet for girls would not only help the individuals, the countries and the communities, but likely the global economy also. Numerous studies, including from Accenture, have shown that women may get more value from digital fluency than men – with the example being many 'influencers' on Instagram making significant amounts of money through entrepreneurship on the site. In a 2013 report called 'Women and the Web' it was claimed that doubling the number of women and girls online in developing countries from 600 million to 1.2 billion could add an estimated $13 billion to $18 billion to annual GDP across 144 developing countries.
Bridging the gender digital divide
The world-wide web is not actually accessible world-wide. With 2.2 billion people under 25 years old unable to access the internet, the answer is not as simple as handing someone a computer – it requires infrastructure (e.g. safe and stable electricity supply, reliable and affordable internet service providers, resources to fund IT systems). Countries where these aren't universally accessible are those who suffer most. Those countries who provide aid may wish to consider allocating funds to help set up and support online learning; companies developing smart tech, clean energy and other innovative IT ideas may like to look outside of developed countries to implement and test out their ideas.
However, this issue isn't just about getting women and girls access to the internet – it is also about the fact that when/if they can get online, they are much more likely to face misogyny. There is unquestionably a culture of aggression, hate speech, image-based sexual abuse, bullying and harassment against women and girls to be found in some areas of the internet. In the UK this has come under scrutiny, and a draft Online Safety Bill is being considered by Parliament which looks to better protect internet users in the UK, including children. While this is progress, the Bill, if it becomes law, is by no means a complete solution. Companies such as Meta (who own Facebook and Instagram) are facing scrutiny and mounting pressure to utilise AI tools and software to pick up hate speech and online bullying. This would undoubtedly make the internet a far more welcome and friendly space for women and girls to go to learn, connect and build communities.
A further way to tackle the divide is by removing the stereotype that science, technology, engineering and mathematics ("STEM") are for boys, and not for girls. Data suggests that the global percentage for female graduates from STEM degrees is 15% lower in over two-thirds of the world. To assist improving this, it is important we highlight female role models and celebrate them in schools and in the home. Women like Susan Wojcicki – YouTube's CEO and one of the first employees at Google, or Professor Sarah Gilbert who helped create the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine are but two such impactful female trailblazers.
Digital inclusion can close the education and tech/digital gender gap, grow communities, narrow the gender pay gap, help equip a new generation of women with skills many employers now require, amplify the female voice and boost the global economy for all. You don't need to Google it, to know it.