Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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The Internet’s Ongoing Gender Gap

by Isobel Coleman
March 22, 2013

An Afghan woman browses the YouTube website at a public internet cafe in Kabul, September 12, 2012 (Mohammad Ismail/Courtesy Reuters). An Afghan woman browses the YouTube website at a public internet cafe in Kabul, September 12, 2012 (Mohammad Ismail/Courtesy Reuters).

Although the Internet seems ubiquitous, for many people in the developing world it is barely a reality—and women are left behind at greater rates than men.

An extensive report from Intel and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, “Women and the Web,” quantifies the Internet gender gap, explains some factors contributing to it, and proposes ways to tackle it. The report estimates “that 21 percent of women and girls in developing countries have access to the Internet, while 27 percent of men have access. This represents 600 million women and girls online—200 million fewer than men and boys.” Because of the spread of the Internet, an additional 450 million women and girls will likely become connected in the next few years, but the report’s authors believe that with the right interventions, an additional 150 million women could get connected.

One of the report’s most valuable contributions is its work on the non-technological factors preventing women from using the Internet. In much of the developing world, basic access to the Internet is a significant problem—which is why developments like undersea cables and less expensive smartphones are particularly exciting. However, social factors that stop women from using technology at the same rate as men are an additional barrier. For example, the report features a survey of women in Uganda, Egypt, India, and Mexico. In response to the question, “Why do you not currently use the Internet (more often)?” the top four responses were:

  1. “I’m not interested in it” (25 percent)
  2. “I’m not familiar/comfortable with the technology” (23 percent)
  3. “I don’t need to access the Internet” (23 percent)
  4. “I don’t have easy access to a computer/mobile phone with the Internet” (22 percent)

Indeed, lack of information about the Internet’s potential is a limiting factor for many women.

When it comes to Internet access, women’s behaviors (and in many cases, attitudes) are shaped by their families and spouses. The report notes that family-based opposition to women’s internet use includes concerns about Internet use taking time away from family responsibilities, safety (e.g. the risk of encountering a predatory person), explicit content, safety concerns around spending time in cybercafés, and a greater emphasis on helping sons learn computers if resources are scarce.

The report rightly notes that some safety concerns are entirely valid–and indeed, recommendations for increasing women’s access include addressing the “scarcity of local content tailored to women’s interests and concerns”–but of course, other concerns are also steeped in perceptions of gender ability. The story of Gayatri Buragohain, who started a group in India called the Feminist Approach to Technology, is particularly compelling: although she had an engineering degree, her family gave her husband more access to the computer because they feared that if she used it, computer problems would somehow develop. “Fear [of technology] is instilled in girls,” she says.

The report offers a variety of solutions to get more women online, ranging from Internet cafes exclusively for women to “invest[ing] in bringing technology and long-term training to the hardest to reach populations, such as low-income and rural women.” Continuing to measure women’s access and to research the reasons for these barriers are other important goals. This report and work by the Cherie Blair Foundation have already made a powerful contribution. But implementing these kinds of solutions will take coordinated efforts.

One organization taking up an important piece of this task is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID just released its annual letter as well as the first-ever USAID Forward progress report, which chronicles the organization’s reform efforts. Both assess progress on closing the gender gap in mobile technology.

The letter mentions a private-public mobile partnership in Iraq, where just 20 percent of women had mobile phones as of 2011. A USAID partnership with the carrier Asiacell resulted in an additional 1.8 million-plus women signing up, and women are now almost 40 percent of Asiacell’s customers. In a blog post, USAID Chief Innovation Officer Maura O’Neill describes some of Asiacell’s innovations that made this possible, including “the freedom to choose off-peak hours, a free service to block any number from calling or texting, and discounts on female-focused value added services.”

Another project discussed in the annual progress report exemplifies what Internet/mobile connectivity means for women’s health. The report notes success by the USAID-supported Mayer Hashi Project in tackling the vital issue of postpartum hemorrhage, which causes more maternal deaths in Bangladesh than any other cause. The USAID report mentions plans to expand the project by involving more women through social media, mobile phones, and videos.

Despite progress for women with the Internet, it is important to note that scaling up promising mobile-based solutions remains a major challenge and will take years of consistent effort.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rob. L. Townsend

    This should be a glass-half-full story, not half-empty. Internet usage is skyrocketing across the developing world: 5 years ago, let alone 10 or 15, it was a fraction of what it is today. As mobile devices become more ubiquitous, usage will continue to expand . . . among both sexes. Given the societal lack of female empowerment amongst such a wide swath of the developing world, it’s amazing that the difference in usage is in fact only 6% (according to this one study). Those 21% of women who now have access (rising soon to 30% and then 50-plus%) are gaining tools for self-empowerment that would have been unimaginable to many of their mothers – and fathers. Sure it would be even better if all women, everywhere, had full internet access today. But realistic analysis shows an amazing degree of progress in an unprecedentedly short time span – certainly aided by projects like the one you cite in Iraq, but by-and-large in their absence.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Great points. Google’s Eric Schmidt predicts very fast rates of internet adoption globally:
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/15/tech/web/eric-schmidt-internet/index.html?eref=rss_mostpopular
    I hope women will be a major part of whatever internet-adoption scenario unfolds, both through natural rates of adoption as well as efforts to get them online more quickly and close existing gender gaps. And you’re right – it is a good news story – but one with some interventions that can be even better.

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