Bridging the digital gender divide

Women and girls are nearly 15 percent less likely to be online than men worldwide. But experts say this digital gender divide can be bridged through education, ensuring access and improving skills.

A woman living at a Protection of Civilian site (PoC) in Juba, South Sudan learns computer skills. More women and girls need to learn and create technology to help bridge the digital gender divide. © UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

For Rokhaya Solange Ndir, Head of Digital Ecosystem Relations for Sonatel in Senegal, getting more women and girls involved in ICT is summed up in the simple idea: if you build it, they will come.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report on women’s entrepreneurship published in 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest average female entrepreneurship activity in the world at nearly 26 percent. Yet many of these businesses are informal or off line, Ndir said. And women were not accessing many of the programmes available to assist them. So, her company, Sonatel, Senegal’s biggest telephony company decided the best way to get those women entrepreneurs online was to create schemes aimed at them. This included Mwoman — which rewards female digital entrepreneurs for innovation as well as organises boot camps to train women to use the internet for business and beyond.

Rokhaya Solange Ndir is head of Ecosystem Relations at Sonatel. She leads Senegal’s Mwomen plan, which aims to make digital a tool for economic, social and women’s empowerment.

The results, said Ndir have been remarkable. There has been an increase of women entrepreneurs online. And in her own company, Sonatel, boasts that its board of directors is 40 percent female.

“Women themselves have an important role to play,” she said. “They must make their voices heard and continue their activism. No one can defend them better than they do.”

Unleash the potential

ICT has the potential to advance women’s rights in the economic and social spheres, said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore. Yet, advancement in technologies has seen a gradual pushing out of women from the digital space, with few women creating the technology or being active in decision making surrounding it.

“The huge potential of ICTs enhancement of women’s and girl’s enjoyment of rights is yet to be realised for a persistent and growing gender digital divide is working against this,” she told the Human Rights Council during a June discussion on women and access to ICT.

Chenai Chair is researcher/communications and evaluations manager at Research ICT Africa. She focuses on issues of ICT access and use related to development.

Another way to better engage women and girls in ICT is to ensure that fairness exist deep in the foundations of emerging technology, said Chenai Chair, from Research ICT Africa. Today’s emerging and data driven solutions, particularly artificial intelligence (AI), still bear the risk of copying existing harmful gender stereotypes and patterns of discrimination against women, she said. Why? Because innovation exists within a context of social and cultural norms that do not necessarily promote gender equality, she said.

“Bias against women starts from who is involved in the design of machine learning and what is their focus,” Chair said. “To ensure that we may capture the gains of AI, we need to understand what is happening through research and thus better inform policies.”

Much of this has to do with the nature of human society. Technology is built by humans and as a result, reflects many of the same strengths and weaknesses that they possess, said Basheerhamad Shadrach, Asia Coordinator for the Alliance for Affordable Internet, World Wide Web Foundation.

“Gender stereotypes that prevail in communities are often reflected also in online spaces, especially when the web is supposedly a tool that needs to offer safe and secure environment for women to learn, participate and be productive,” he said.

Bridging the divide

Girls study in a digital learning centre specifically created for girls in India. © EPA/RAJAT GUPTA

Trends for women and girls participation online are not promising. According to an ITU Report “Women in Tech: The Facts”, the percentage of women in computing jobs has been declining. IN 1991, women held 36 percent of these jobs. As of 2015, that number had dropped to 25 percent, and for women of colour that number was even lower.

Various reports also show that the overall digital gender gap is widening, with one estimate that there are 200 million fewer women online than men, Eva Kjer Hansen, Danish Minister for Fisheries and Equal Opportunities told the Human Rights Council at the same panel discussion. With 90 percent of jobs expected to require ICT skills (according to a World Economic Forum study), “enhancing women’s and girls’ access to and use of information and communication technology can help close the digital gender gap and empower women to take leadership of their own life and claim their rights,” she said.

Eva Kjer Hansen is Minister of Fisheries and Equal Opportunities and Nordic Cooperation of Denmark.

The potential of ICTs for the realization of rights becomes apparent with each passing day, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Gilmore said. ICTs can provide more affordable and inclusive educational opportunities for girls, particularly in the area of the right to health.

For example, women and girls are unable to physically access information about sexual and reproductive or mental health information or services because distance of services, or stigma or bias or even legislation requiring others’ authorization before accessing health care services — in those circumstances, online access to critical information and advice can empower, she said.

“We must instill digital literacy, skills and confidence in girls and women,” Gilmore said. “We must ensure girls and women’s access to digital assets, such as internet cafes, making safe and protecting their online presence from hate. And we must ensure that new and emerging technologies — and those that administer them — do not replicate or exacerbate existing patterns of discrimination against women.”

Watch the panel discussion “Advancing women’s rights in access to ICTs” on UN Web TV.