The internet is supposed to be a great leveller, but worldwide, there are 250 million fewer women online than there are men. The problem is getting worse: Since 2013, the gender gap has widened considerably in Africa, the Arab states and the Americas. In the world’s least developed countries less than 13 percent of women are online.
The gap is replicated in the use of mobile phones; 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone in low-income and middle-income countries. These women are excluded from the economy and society; they are deprived of a wealth of crucial information – be it educational, medical or social. Access to information not only promotes their personal development; it gives them a voice. It makes them feel safer.
Even when women are connected, they are less likely than men to use technology to their advantage. This is especially true when it comes to accessing financial services and employment opportunities.
To get more women online, we need to address gender discrimination offline. As long as women continue to bear the brunt of global poverty in the real world – owning fewer assets than men; working more for less money; having restricted mobility; receiving a poorer standard of education – they will be unable to match men in the digital world. Of the 780 million illiterate people in the world, two-thirds are women. And if you can’t read or write, you can’t operate a computer or a mobile phone.
It is no surprise that women are also under-represented in the tech sector. Women make up 40 percent of the world’s total workforce, yet they comprise just 25 percent of the ICT industry. This lack of representation gets worse at senior levels – only three tech companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women. That’s in the developed world, where the barriers to participation are lower than in many emerging economies.
The moral imperative for change is clear, but what of the economic cost?
There is a strong economic argument to be made for getting more women into tech. With less gender equity, companies are less productive. A minimum of 30 percent female participation in management positions could increase profitability by 15 percent.
The technology workforce also risks having little resemblance to the community that uses its products, if men hold disproportionate influence over design and use. How can major technology brands be fully informed about what we want and need when there’s little to no input from 52 percent of the world’s population?
This problem was brought into stark relief when Apple developed an expansive health app which completely ignored menstruation. The company’s workforce was 30 percent female at the time; it is now 37 percent.
The sector is growing rapidly and has huge economic potential, but poor female participation means greater economic inequality and an alarming shortfall in the number of skilled professionals to fill upcoming jobs. UNESCO estimates that gender equality in technology would open up a market of $50-70 billion.
The digital gender divide is not a new issue, but positive change is slow. As new technology continues to affect every aspect of our lives, it’s more important than ever to keep talking about gender inequality.
Ultimately, raising questions around women’s access to tech, and their role within the sector, will shape levels of inequality in our society.
The United Nations has pledged to end gender inequality by 2030. We’ll only achieve that, along with the other Sustainable Development Goals, if women and girls are given better access to technology and a role in the digital workforce.