Decoding the Digital Gender Divide

Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin photo

ITI's Nilmini Rubin is participating in the World Economic Forum sessions in Davos this week, and posted this blog after her panel discussion on maximizing technology to close the gender divide.  The blog is crossposted from the WEF website.

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How can the full potential of information technologies be harnessed to close the gender divide? This is a critical question. Our societies are being transformed by technological change and we are seeing more job growth in technology. As tech is a key to our future, we need to make sure that women are not left behind.  

Though mobile phone use is proliferating – there are more mobile phones in use than toilets – women still have less mobile phone access than men. This can exacerbate the existing education, finance, and health divides as mobile phones are a critical tool. Intel’s Women and the Web report shows that there are 200 million fewer women than men on the Internet. In Africa, men are almost twice as likely as women to be on the Internet.

Some women in Egypt said that there was nothing they needed on the Internet because they had no idea of what was on the Web. Around the world, girls are turned off to careers in technology because of the lack of fellow female classmates, a perceived “geekiness” of the industry, and lack of encouragement.

Though some gender differences are culturally ingrained, thoughtful measures can be taken to slowly change culture; products can be created specifically for women. In Turkey, for example, there are some Internet cafés that cater to women-only, which allows women to use the Internet without harassment. In Saudi Arabia, a minister decided to integrate the Intel Science Prize ceremonies for girls and boys to encourage them equally. In Malawi, an NGO provided biometric smart cards for women to store their money, helping to ensure that the women maintained control of their own funds. In Iraq, communications products were designed to connect them with their children.

Gender inclusion should be standardized so that development and technology policies and programmes ensure that the needs of women are addressed, with the active involvement with women. Companies should roll out products that serve women’s needs. Governments and development agencies should integrate technology, particularly broadband penetration, into their overall infrastructure policy so wires can be laid at the same time as roads and bridges are built.  

The oversubscribed discussion with Bill Brindley from Nethope, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Nasser Marafih from the Qtel Group, Jeannette Wing from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research was skilfully moderated by Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International. Frederick Reinfeldt, Prime Minister of Sweden, shared final comments. 

Though there are significantly more men than women at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was still surprised that the gender technology gap was reflected in the speakers for our session – only one of the six presenters was a woman. That said, it was refreshing to be in a discussion about gender inclusion that was not women-only.  

Key Points

  • We are at a tipping point with the explosion of mobile technology and increase in Internet access. With technology increasingly important to our global tomorrow, women must be a larger part of the creation and use of technology around the world. 
  • Businesses, governments and development agencies must integrate gender and technology into their ongoing efforts.
  • Culture is a major cause of the digital gender divide. Societal change is necessary so that technology can help close – not exacerbate – the gap.
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