Beyond increasing and deepening basic access to ICT for women
In the recent address of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, he highlighted two ‘epochal challenges’ that undergird our existing global order: climate change and risks associated with advances in technology. While noting the promises of technology in accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, technology can also be used to perpetuate “discrimination against women and reinforce our male-dominated culture.”
“There is a deep gender gap in access to digital technologies, widening the digital divide.”
- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
The speech brought to the fore a perennial issue that stubbornly remains despite the apparent widening of access to mobile phones and other access devices even in developing countries. The latest State of the Broadband report of the Broadband Commission notes that as per ITU data, mobile cellular subscriptions reached 7.4 billion in 2017 while mobile broadband subscriptions reached 4.2 billion globally. Unfortunately, these aggregate data mask gender differences which can be substantial.
For example, in 2017, the ITU notes that there were 250 million fewer women online than men.
The recently launched preliminary findings of an upcoming report by the EQUALS Research Group lays the foundation regarding the current state of knowledge and data on the digital gender divides in ICT access, skills, and leadership. The report aims to inform future activities of EQUALS partners and the broader community of stakeholders including policymakers and practitioners interested in unpacking and solving the various gender inequality challenges from access to ICTs to participation in the ICT industry.
Read the preliminary report:
Regarding access to ICTs, the EQUALS report notes that gender divide remains in terms of basic access (access to and use of access devices) and in meaningful access (including basic digital skills and use of more advanced services such as use of mobile/e-payments). For basic access, the gender gap persists irrespective of whether overall use levels in a particular country are high or low. There are also indications that gender divides widen as technologies get more sophisticated, expensive, and enable more transformational use and impacts.
However, promoting gender digital equality does not stop at providing women with the tools, means, and capabilities to access and meaningfully use ICTs.
As access to ICTs widen, we need to ensure that the dangers and violence that women and girls experience offline are not replicated and amplified online. Unfortunately, the goal of bringing women and girls online is often superseded by the challenges of keeping them safe online. Yet, our understanding of the issue is compounded by the limited availability of global data on this topic. Accounting for instances of Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls (Cyber-VAWG) is complicated because of the evolving nature of ICTs and that the kind of cyber-VAWG that can emerge from these technologies are not fully known. In most instances, evidence on the extent of the Cyber-VAWG is mostly issue/country-specific and anecdotal rather than global in scope.
Addressing these challenges would require comprehensive data regimes. Reliable and correct data and indicators are the bedrock of well-informed and evidence-based policies. The EQUALS report notes that while advances have been made in collecting gender-disaggregated data covering basic access, for the most part, irregular data collection and inadequate country coverage still affect our ability to draw a global picture of the problem.
As new technologies emerge (e.g. artificial intelligence), it is also likely that measuring digital divides in ICT access will continue to be a moving target.
These tasks ahead need not overwhelm us though, for these challenges in data creation and collection can create opportunities to open and expand pathways to partnerships by a wide range of stakeholders to address the gender digital divide in ICT access.
Don Rodney Junio is a Senior Research Assistant at the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS). He is one of the researchers working on the upcoming EQUALS Research Group inaugural report that will be published in January 2019. The EQUALS Research Group focuses on generating knowledge about the existence, causes and remedies for gender tech inequalities, and on motivating key stakeholder groups to collect and share gender-relevant data.