The Inequality of the “Great Equalizer:” Closing the Internet access gender gap

by Chris Denny-Brown and Andria Thomas

In one case, a young Indian woman with an Engineering degree found that her family preferred she not use the household computer, for fear that – as a woman – it would break if she touched it.  In Egypt, a relatively well-off young homemaker describes not using the internet because her family didn’t allow it, fearing her exposure to pornographic websites. Another story recounted by a mother and teacher in Uganda reveled in the new convenience of accessing the Internet on a mobile phone, after years of struggling to reach the expensive internet café and avoiding using it at night.

Globally, there are 4.6 billion people who do not yet use the Internet for a variety of reasons, including cost, availability, and need. In developing countries, there are far more men than women online, and the reasons for this Internet gender gap often have more to do with culture and environmental factors than anything else.  These three stories represent just a few challenges faced by millions of women in developing countries today. Although the Internet is often hailed as “The Great Equalizer,” allowing everyone with a connection access to libraries worth of information in an instant, the unfortunate and perhaps surprising truth is that access is not distributed equally to one segment of the population in particular: women and girls.

In partnership with Intel Corporation, Dalberg recently published Women and the Web, a groundbreaking study on the Internet access gender gap in the developing world.  The study found that more than 200 million fewer women have access to the Internet in developing countries than men.  This equates to a gender gap of nearly 25%, meaning that for every four men in the developing world who have access to the Internet’s opportunities and benefits, only three women have that same access. But the gender gap is not uniform across all countries or regions. In Latin America, the gender gap is a relatively modest 10%, while in sub-Saharan Africa the gender gap approaches 50%.

Cultural norms and family expectations, such as those described above, represent just one key reason behind the gender gap. Surveys conducted across Egypt, India, Mexico and Uganda by Dalberg’s partner GlobeScan indicate that women also hesitate, or are explicitly prohibited, from using the Internet for reasons including affordability, lack of familiarity with technology, and in many cases, a pervasive sense that the Internet is just not relevant to their lives. More than 40% of women non-users surveyed in Egypt said that they were “not interested” in using the Internet, and 40% of those in India said they “didn’t need access to it.”

Yet the data on the benefits that women (and thus, society overall) can realize through increased Internet use is clear. The study found roughly 80% of female users reported that Internet access had improved their education and studies, and more than 30% said Internet access led to more income.  But just as critically, the study found that Internet access can be a platform for women’s empowerment.

“Exposure to people outside their community, and their ideas, tells women: your background is not the prime factor in determining what your possibilities are,” described Emilie Reiser with Digital Democracy in Haiti.  And Jensine Larsen, Founder of World Pulse, added “Being connected, heard, and externally validated within a global community provides many women the courage and support they need to become change agents at home.”

Women and the Web is an exciting call to action to gender activists, policymakers and development experts across the world.  The study challenges these stakeholders to double the number of women online in developing countries from 600 million today to 1.2 billion within three years. Doing so represents an annual growth opportunity of nearly $20 billion and a market opportunity of up to $70 billion, in sales of Internet-enabled devices and accompanying services. This is above and beyond the education, income, and empowerment benefits that could be realized by women and from there, their households and communities. The global Internet access gender gap is truly a “prob-ortunity” – both a problem and an opportunity.  The gender gap is a critical challenge that threatens to leave millions of women and girls behind in an increasingly globally connected world. But the opportunity to improve the lives of women and girls is tremendous and can be accelerated by working to reduce the Internet gender gap now.

The full report can be accessed here.

Chris Denny-Brown is a Senior Consultant in Dalberg’s New York office and Andria Thomas is a Project Manager in Washington DC. Chris and Andria co-authored the Intel Women and the Web report along with New York Partner Yana Watson.

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