Digital Gender Divide

Brianna Nguyen

December 07, 2020

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Without the right policies, obstacles that women have encountered - and continue to face - in the analogue world are likely to grow exponentially in the digital future. The barriers to gender equality are numerous and diverse. Some are sprinkled in the past, while others are distinctive to today. Hurdles to access and affordability, natural biases, and sociocultural norms, combined with lack of educational opportunities and skills, curb women's ability to fully benefit from the digital transformation. However, these barriers are in no way impossible. Policy interventions can help pave the way to greater gender inclusion, with a focus on the fundamental role of education and training in bridging the digital gender divide.

Affordability may prevent women from accessing and benefiting from digital technologies. In some economies, particularly in rural areas and among the socioeconomically disadvantaged, this can be a major impediment to the digital world. Affordability not only refers to the financial resources needed to purchase and operate digital technologies but also to human resources, including the time needed to learn how to use digital tools. This often results from the unpaid work that women take on within the home environment and the care they provide for children and the elderly. Lack of skills and confidence may also keep women at the margins of the digital revolution. In some economies, even when women know about digital technologies and have access to them, they may lack the skills and confidence to actually use them. "Technophobia" is often a result of concurrent factors including education, employment status and income level. Importantly, the negative experiences that many girls and women endure online can have negative consequences on their lives. Cyber-bullying, gender stereotyping, and online harassment contribute to frequent reports that women do not feel safe or comfortable taking the center stage online. This has also led many families to discourage girls from doing so. Such negative experiences online, in media, and in social networks can have an adverse impact on the well-being of many young girls and women, with negative slippery slope effects on their self-confidence, trust, and ultimately their mental health and physical safety.

Many barriers preventing women from being active protagonists of the digital revolution are rooted in the opportunities, attitudes, and expectations that they are confronted with. In that regard, schools are particularly important as they create a space for education to help tackle the gender digital divide by dismantling gender stereotypes that prevent girls from developing the skills, ambition, and confidence needed to thrive in the digital world. Granting access to (good) education to all individuals, including girls and women who live in disadvantaged conditions or areas, is necessary to bridging the gender divide and even more so in the digital world . Too often communities, teachers, and also family members wield peer pressure for girls to make choices that conform to stereotypical notions of femininity. Girls often receive stereotypical advice when selecting courses, educational pathways, and professions. These factors ultimately contribute to economies whereby too few women have the skills, confidence, and determination needed to thrive in the digital world, but also whereby too few women are willing to play a leading role in this world even when they have the competencies to do so. The limitations of current education systems create barriers that are later amplified in life.

The gender wage gap characterizes all parts of the economy, with differences emerging between digital-intensive and less digital-intensive industries. This gap is more pronounced in digital intensive industries in Singapore, the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, and Japan, while it is relatively more pronounced in less digital intensive industries in economies such as New Zealand, Chile, and the Republic of Korea. Education, including vocational programs, may help upskilling or reskilling women after spells outside of paid work related to taking care of family or children. Caring responsibilities prevent women from upskilling and retraining in rapidly evolving digital sectors. There is a sort of vicious cycle whereby women lag behind in acquiring the right skills at school, and that is not rectified, but rather magnified, as they strive to progress in their professional careers.

Policy is key to helping economies bridge the digital gender divide. There are many actions that could be implemented to narrow and ultimately erase such gaps in schools, universities, and workplaces and that could bring about tangible benefits at sustainable costs. Such actions need to be part of a systemic approach and require a high level of commitment from policy makers and other stakeholders to embrace the rewards. The four key areas identified as part of a systemic approach are: promoting skills and learning, empowering educators and making them active agents of change, changing attitudes and expectations, and preventing discrimination and gender-based violence. Altogether, these four objectives represent a comprehensive set of actions that can facilitate systemic change among a wide range of stakeholders and can help break down the barriers that prevent female digital empowerment.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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