Digital Gender Inequality: Challenges and Proposed Actions (Part 1)

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Digital Gender Inequality: Challenges and Proposed Actions (Part 1)

In 2020, the world will mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nation’s blueprint for female rights.  Since the Beijing conference, some progress has been made in addressing gender inequality.  However, there is still more work to be done especially in the area of digital gender inequality – the imbalance that exists between males and females in the adoption of digital technologies.  In a 2018 report published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the gender gap in internet adoption globally appeared to be widening in favour of men.  The GSMA’s “The Gender Gap Report 2019” also shows a similar trend in mobile ownership and mobile internet usage.  While reliable data on Ghana is not readily available, my work with the Institute of ICT Professionals, Ghana attest to the fact that this challenge exists.

The digital gender gap is also a usage gap.  According to the above-mentioned GSMA report, in low and middle-income countries like Ghana, females spend on the average 17% less than males on mobile service.  Affordability is one of the main reasons for the digital gender gap. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) defines “affordability as 1GB of mobile broadband data costing no more than 2% of average monthly income”.  Compared to other countries outside the continent, connecting to the internet is expensive.  Apart from the cost of the service which involves usage charges and taxes, there is also the issue of expensive end-user device.  While one may argue that affordability affects everybody, it must be noted that women feel its impact more due to their generally limited purchasing power and financial independence compared to men.  The only digital technology where this gap is not significant is mobile money and any attempt to tax it may further widen this digital gender gap.

Though affordability is a barrier, lack of literacy and digital skills is probably the greatest challenge to reducing this digital gender gap.  Reading and writing skills are needed in order to participate online.  Free Senior High School education will partially resolve this by getting more girls to develop literacy skills.  However, we need to look at literacy training for adult females and a special focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for girls.  Online resources provide opportunity for learning and acquiring new job relevant skills and females must be encouraged to use them.  The digital gender gap is even wider when it comes to advanced digital skills such as software development, artificial intelligence, data science, etc.

Relatedly, the disparity in gender equality can clearly be seen in terms of employment.  Far more men than women work in the digital sector. With my personal experience, there have been times when my project teams of close to 50 members did not have any female.  Even when women are employed in the digital sector, the role tends to focus on lower level skills such as data entry. In terms of management and executive positions, the situation is no different.  However, it is refreshing to see some women blazing the trail for our young girls by taking up leadership positions in telecommunications companies in the country.  The digital sector offers massive opportunity for decent jobs and entrepreneurship for females to become financially independent.

Also, the number of cyber-attacks and cyber breaches continue to increase globally. A survey by GSMA Intelligence established that safety and security concerns are preventing people in developing countries from adopting mobile internet. This threat affects more women than men. Women are more likely to be victims of cyberstalking and online sexual harassment especially through social media. These attacks occur because perpetuators are able to hide their identities. Therefore, women are more concerned about their online privacy and safety.  Privacy risks are resulting in more women sharing less on social media and keeping their profiles and activities private. These issues must not be taken for granted as victims of online sexual harassment may attempt suicide.

Furthermore, the lack of relevant content is a major reason for the digital gender gap.  Most women do not have interest or see any benefit in connecting due to lack of relevant content, app or services. In a developing country like Ghana, it is uncommon to find relevant content in our local languages.  Cultural barriers and social norms may also be the cause of the digital gender divide. There is the need to address these fundamental socio-cultural barriers and focus on content in local languages.

Finally, it is important to stress that addressing the issue of digital gender inequality makes economic sense.  Females make up almost half of our population.  Therefore, we need women to adopt broadband usage in order to increase our broadband penetration.   According to ITU, 10 per cent increase in mobile broadband penetration in Africa would yield an increase of 2.5 per cent of GDP per capita. Closing the digital gender gap, therefore, makes economic sense for a developing country like Ghana.

Author: Kuuku Sam – (Director of Programmes and  Professional Services, Institute of ICT Professionals, Ghana)

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