The Male-Female Digital Divide
By Elisabeth Tweedie, Founder, Definitive Direction. The digital divide generally refers to the discrepancy between those that have access to broadband and the internet, and those that do not, in other words the “other three billion.” Contrary to popular perception, although the majority of them are, the other three billion are not only located in developing countries. According to the ITU even in developed countries, 11% of urban dwellers and 15% of rural dwellers are offline.
There is also a gender division, although according to the ITU, this gap is closing. Overall 57% of females use the internet, compared with 62% of males. As expected, this varies by country, shrinking to only 1% (88% vs 89%) in developed countries, compared to an 11% discrepancy (27% vs 38%) in the land-locked developing countries (LLDCs), some of the poorest countries on earth.
Multiple factors contribute to this gender gap in developing countries. Digital literacy is a significant issue. This ties back to access to education in general; the latest report from the UNDP indicates that one in four girls in developing countries do not attend even primary school. One of the goals of the UNDP is to eliminate gender gaps in education by 2030.
Other contributory factors include poverty, when resources are scarce, it’s more likely that a boy will have a mobile phone than a girl. This is significant, as frequently, in developing countries, mobile phones offer the only way to get online. One study found that boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than a girl and 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone. 52% of girls will have to borrow a mobile phone if they want digital access, compared to 28% of boys who need to borrow a phone. Societal norms and fear of harassment are other factors contributing to the lower usage of technology by girls and women.
This lack of access to technology is more than a personal matter. The Brookings Institution combined data from vendor surveys and e-commerce platforms in Africa, and determined that closing the gender gap in e-commerce could add nearly $15 billion to the value of Africa’s e-commerce industry between 2025-30.
Using the internet is one thing, being able to take advantage of it to advance one’s career, is entirely another. This is where the second digital divide occurs. Many women are competent users of social media, but lack the skills to handle a basic spreadsheet, much less use that ability in a science, engineering or technology-based career. In the UK, for example, only 13% of the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce are women. The US fares somewhat better with women representing 28% of the STEM workforce, nevertheless this is still a long way from parity.
Unfortunately, the current lack of women in these careers, contributes to fewer women aspiring to enter the STEM workforce. Quite simply, there are not enough role models. Not only that, the lack of women in the STEM industries, leads to male-dominated cultures that feel exclusionary and unsupportive of women and minorities. That is not the only factor holding women back. Although these days, there is much talk about gender equality, unconscious bias is hard to eliminate, and the myth that the hard sciences are “masculine subjects” persists, albeit subtly. As if that wasn’t enough, many female teachers have their own “maths anxiety” that they pass onto their female students.
The consequences of women being underrepresented can be far reaching – and devastating. Historically, fewer women scientists led to most medical research being done on male lab rats, in order to avoid having to deal with cyclical hormonal fluctuations and women’s more complicated bodies. The obvious consequences being that some drugs are less effective and even harmful for women. There are many other examples of females being excluded from product research, from voice activated apps that only responded to male voices, to seat belts that don’t accommodate pregnant women.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is now playing an increasing role in everyday life. Gender bias whether conscious or unconscious in the software that drives AI and machine learning (ML) can have far-reaching and disturbing consequences. Screening job candidates for example. If most of the current employees in an industry or job are male, which they are in STEM jobs, without deliberate programming to counter this, ML will direct candidate screening programs to favor male applicants, so perpetuating the situation of women being underrepresented in these jobs. This bias comes both from the people doing the programming, to the datasets used. If there are not enough women represented in the dataset or contributing to it, then bias errors occur and perpetuate.
These are just a few of the ways in which girls and women are disadvantaged when it comes to technology. The good news is, that we are now aware of this, and actions, such as the goal by the UNDP to eliminate gender bias in education, are being taken.
On an individual level, we, as women who work in technology, can do our part to support other women, which is exactly what SSPI-WISE is doing. We can also reach out to girls at school and university as the STEM outreach group does through school visits and offering a scholarship to the Satellite conference every year.
According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 136 years to close the gender gap. Let’s all do our part to ensure that we can close it in less time!
Elisabeth Tweedie’s entire career has been focused on commercial satellites, telecommunications and broadcasting, specifically in the highly specialized area of evaluating the long term potential for new ventures, initiating their development and finding and developing appropriate alliances.
During the course of her career she has advised and worked with senior stakeholders in global and international businesses, governments and regulatory bodies. Her core expertise is in understanding new technology and its practical applications; identifying key drivers for both B2B and B2C markets and identifying, evaluating and developing JV opportunities.
Elisabeth has an MBA in International Marketing from the University of Aston (UK) where she graduated top of her class; she is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Advanced Management in Telecommunications Program. Early in her career she authored numerous published multi-client reports on the market and economic aspects of telecommunications and media industries in Europe, Asia and North America and is currently Associate Editor of Satellite Executive Briefing.