We need to know more about the Digital Gender Gap

Better access to digital tools and content allows women to be in touch with friends and family, accessing important weather and agricultural information, easier access to credit and saving tools, and most importantly, obtaining important health information for themselves and their families. Due to this reason alone, digital access should be a matter of priority for women around the world.

However, there is a significant gender gap in access to internet and mobile technology. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 45 percent fewer women than men have internet access. Improving women’s access to Information and Communications technology (ICT) represents a major opportunity, both from a business perspective and as a development imperative.

As QualComm noted in their report, Transforming Women’s Livelihoods Through Mobile Broadband, industry research estimates that every 10 percent increase in access to broadband is correlated with a 1.38 percent growth in GDP for developing countries, and bringing 600 million additional women and girls online could boost global GDP by up to $13- 18 billion USD.

Significant effort has been made to understand how to close this gender gap — over the last 10 years, a number of cross sectoral partnerships have formed to conduct and publish research to elucidate major barriers to access.

Because of these efforts, there is a now a significant body of work highlighting key barriers to ICT access for women. As these barriers range in nature from highly concrete, such as electricity and network coverage, to far more subjective barriers like social and cultural norms, it’s clear that certain industries and sectors are poised to respond to certain barriers better than others. For example, PowerAfrica, Alliance for Affordable Internet, mobile network providers, and governments with an interest in the electrification of low-and middle income countries (LMICs) are best suited to handle the infrastructure issues of electrification and network coverage. However, NGOs with a deeper understanding of gender issues and companies who are dedicated to better understanding the female market across LMICs have a role to play in understanding the cultural barriers to access. Despite there being many potential interests for reaching women, there remain a number of key research questions that need further explanation. In particular, we need a deeper understanding of:

  • Amongst content, digital literacy, and cultural factors, which weighs most heavily on female users in terms of their reluctance and/or inability to access ICTs initially or more extensively?
  • Are there cultural factors that prohibit initial or more extensive use of devices?
  • Beyond acknowledging and addressing them, can content change cultural norms? More specifically, does receipt of certain content change perceptions, actions, or behaviors that change basic cultural factors?
  • What risks (or unintended consequences) to female users does access to technology pose?

We all have much to gain from research on lowering costs and increasing ICT access for women, as these factors directly pertain to increases in market share and successful business models designed with the female user in mind.

It is, in fact, some of the “softer,” less tangible barriers to usage that have limited research findings, as these topics often require complex research design and can be difficult, expensive, timely, or even controversial to study. That said there is a huge opportunity for further study of these areas, as they are extremely interconnected and critical determinants to improving female usage in the long term. Specific research questions should focus on understanding how to overcome cultural barriers and content relevant to women. We should also work to better understand how various types of literacy impact ICT use.

While some organizations are exploring how to overcome these barriers, a critical gap remains in our understanding about certain barriers and understanding which of the barriers is the most important to address.

If we truly believe that access to healthcare can be improved with digital platforms, we must address the gender gap in ICT and invest in understanding why the gaps exist so we can better design and market tools for women.

Kirsten Gagnaire is a social entrepreneurship and innovation pioneer with more than 20 years of proven experience in global health concept-to-execution program leadership, specifically in cross-sector partnership with global health, digital development, and gender issues.

Originally published at Connected Health Quarterly.