Are We Closing the Digital Gender Gap?

I recently had the opportunity to attend two events that asked tough questions about engaging women and youth in the global digital revolution. The first event, hosted by Tech Salon DC, brought development technology leaders together in Washington, D.C. to discuss progress that has been made in closing the digital gender gap and what challenges still need to be addressed.

When women are included in the digital society, it benefits all of us. In 2010, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) published a paper on this very topic. They found that access to technology empowers women, improves the efficiency of their work, and strengthens their ability to compete in market economies. Key benefits of improved economic status for women through technology include:

  • Higher earning potential and improved literacy for women.
  • Faster economic growth and more transparent business practices.
  • Improved education and health outcomes (higher rate of vaccination and lower mortality rates) for children.

As one member of the Salon put it, “it’s amazing how resourceful women are once you give them technology, but don’t limit them before they start.”

The Tech Salon primarily focused on which barriers are preventing women from achieving these successes, and whether the international community is doing enough to address them. We discussed how we measure success in technology adoption, and how understanding what women are doing with technology can help us tackle sustainability. As a development community, we need to be cognizant that developing or offering a service does not inherently mean it applies to everyone. For example, we could develop a mobile tool that can help smallholder farmers connect directly to vendors, but fail to recognize that in some cultures, women don’t own a cellphone or aren’t able to freely speak to strangers on the phone. When a digital service is offered, we need to address cultural norms within a community to ensure it reaches women and that programs are gender inclusive. This starts with recognizing inherent gender biases that exist around the globe.

In many places around the world, the biggest hurdle facing women in accessing and using technology is culture. Men and women do not have the same opportunities or expectation when it comes to jobs, education, or using technology. Culture and behavior change are difficult to understand, especially for outsiders, and typically require long-term investment to see real impact. The group agreed that, up until now, very little has been done to address it, and we need to work together to address this before we see major improvements in the digital gender divide.

Tackling the divide is not easy, but there are a lot of great organizations that are working on addressing existing barriers. A promising outcome of the Tech Salon was the group’s recognition that we all need to do a better job of leveraging synergies to not duplicate work. At DIAL, we believe an open environment is key to creating an inclusive digital society and are committed to sharing our learnings and insights with the community.

DIAL’s Allana Nelson with co-facilitators Aisha Abdul-Qadir and Ruth Kaveke.

The second event I had the opportunity to attend was the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) Youth Unconference in Kigali, Rwanda. There, I heard from many young men and women around the globe who are using digital technology to transform their communities through social enterprises.

The Unconference served as a platform for over 100 youths from 10 countries in the DOT network to come together and learn from each other’s experiences and how to improve the impact of their social enterprises. To say these young people were an inspiration would be an understatement – they were intelligent, civic-minded, and passionate about technology and its ability to improve the economies of their countries. Just a few incredible examples include one young man developing sustainably produced menstruation pads, made from shredded banana leaf fiber, that sell for half the cost of normal pads allowing more young girls to stay in school when they otherwise would have to stay home. Another young woman produces and sells solar lamps to communities without power. I also met an entrepreneur who conceptualized a new method for inexpensively producing flour from carrots and other root vegetables that can be made into porridge as a safe solution to mother and child malnutrition.

A major focus of the Unconference was on the topic of barriers to digital opportunities, and what youth can be doing to address those challenges. Many of them highlighted the role gender and culture factors into access and education around technology. More than one session discussed the digital gender divide, and discussed the importance of engaging girls in ICT as early as possible – and then continue to encourage them as they get older. Christelle Kwizera, a panelist and mechanical engineer from Rwanda, put it this way: “When you start in primary school, everything looks normal. There are boys and girls. But when you go to college and engineering school, there are fewer women [and] you start to realize that all of your colleagues are male… You have no role models, so I wanted to return to Rwanda and be that role model.”

In Kigali, I was able to share the Principles of for Digital Development with Unconference attendees. The Principles are living guidelines that can help development practitioners integrate established best practices into technology-enabled programs. By adopting these principles at an early stage, young men and women looking to leverage digital technology to start companies, innovate new technologies, or improve their community have a guide that can help them achieve broader adoption and sustainability for their work. Participants in my session shared challenges they have faced in implementing programs in the past, and what digital tools and solutions were available to them at the time. They also provided feedback on what resources they wish they had; these insights are helping our team at DIAL, as stewards for the Principles, shape new content that will be launched later this year.

These two events provided me with different, but equally valuable insights. On the one hand, I met implementers thinking about big picture issues facing women in technology and struggling to identify the best way to address them. On the other, I engaged with young social entrepreneurs who are actively driving these changes forward and meeting needs as they come up against them. Both groups recognize the immense value of engaging girls and women in ICT, but they are approaching them from different directions. Observing these two sides reinforced to me that the digital gender divide is still an issue, but it also encouraged me that it is being confronted in significant ways.

This is the second post in a series on Overcoming the Digital Gender Divide. The first can be found here. In the final installment of the series, you will meet Aisha Abdul-Qadir, a social entrepreneur who is challenging gender stereotypes and educating girls in ICT in Mombasa, Kenya.

Allana Nelson joined DIAL in March 2017 as the Program Manager for the Principles for Digital Development on the Insights and Impact team. In this position, she is responsible for promotion, education, and advocacy of the Principles. Prior to joining DIAL, Allana worked at USAID on technology-based solutions to the Ebola response and recovery efforts in West Africa.