THE DIGITAL GENDER DIVIDE

The digital gender divide

I am at the age where most of my female friends are married and having children. Parallel to this, I have noticed that the amount of time some of them spend online is decreasing while the amount of time it takes them to respond to a text message is increasing. Friends who used to respond almost instantly to WhatsApp messages now take two to three business days to respond. They frequently claim that they do not have time to go online because they are overburdened with household chores and baby duties. This is especially true for those who do unpaid care work only, i.e., cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly, also known as “housewives.” I asked a few men if their male friends were acting the same way after marriage or having children. The answer was a resounding no. This phenomenon is linked to a larger issue known as the digital gender divide.

What is the digital gender divide?

The digital gender divide is the disparity in access to information and communications technologies (ICT) between men and women. In 2020, digital literacy, defined as “the ability to use a computer, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone on one’s own” was at 53% for men and 46.2% for women in Sri Lanka, while internet usage was at 38.6% for men and 30.6% for women. Even though this gap may appear insignificant at first glance, it is important to remember that the bar for being deemed digitally literate is incredibly low, with the majority of the percentage coming from being able to use a smartphone. Further, being able to use a device does not necessarily mean that women in fact use these devices on a regular basis. And these are the national averages, and the gap must be wider in rural areas.

What are the reasons for this gap?

A myriad of social, cultural, and economic factors contribute to the digital gender divide. A woman who worked at an agency post office mentioned in 2018, “There are an equal number(s) of women and men who come to my shop for recharge. But more men ask for data packs, whereas women are only recharging for voice services”. One reason for this could be the high cost of data. Most of the time, women are the household’s financial managers, and they are frequently forced to choose between a kilo of rice and a data card. Women also live in poverty at a higher rate than men, limiting their access to digital devices and the internet. According to reports, female-headed households in Sri Lanka are up to 60% poorer than male-headed households.

Gender norms that contribute to the digital divide have become stronger with COVID-19 as well. For example, because all of the children in a household need devices to attend online classes, many parents who are struggling financially are forced to decide which of their children receives a new device. In the face of such an impossible choice, parents often prioritize their sons as a son’s education is deemed more important within the Sri Lankan culture, as they are considered future breadwinners. Concerns about the safety of girl children and their modesty may also be at play. A telling story on this regard was published in the most recent issue of Bakamoono.lk’s “Athwala” magazine. It discussed how modesty concerns are interfering with girls’ online education. For example, internet signal strength is poor in many areas of Sri Lanka, and children are frequently forced to climb trees to gain access to adequate mobile signals. Girls are not allowed to climb trees because of societal gender norms, and as a result, they miss out on online classes.

The patriarchal nature of the family unit, as well as a culture of protectionism, contribute to the digital divide, with many adult women needing the “permission” of their husbands to own a device or use social media. I, too, have a few friends who are “not allowed” to have their own social media accounts. They either use their husbands’ profiles or joint accounts. When they do have their own accounts, they are frequently monitored by their husbands, and passwords are shared. Women often own feature phones or “dumb phones” as opposed to smartphones, which severely limits their ability to access the internet and associated e-services. This is possibly because women are either not financially independent or have husbands that control their purchasing power.

These barriers to accessing the digital space solidify the notion that women do not need equal access to the internet, even among women, because the less you use something, the less you see the need for it. Therefore, it is important that we examine the real life implications of this divide.

What are the negative effects of this gap?

In a more tangible way, the digital gender divide affects our chances of eradicating poverty. Poverty often denies access to critical resources such as credit, land and inheritance, education, and support services, and this same lack of access traps people, especially women, in a cycle of poverty. ICT can be the key to breaking away from that cycle, as it makes access to education and support services more affordable. The potential for ICT to facilitate women’s economic empowerment and stimulate broader growth is also vast, as it is uniquely positioned to help overcome barriers that are specific to female entrepreneurs, such as lack of access to equity, capital, information, and limitations on mobility and time. For example, although women constitute over 31% of small and medium entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, they are statistically far less likely to access private equity or venture capital. ICTs can help women bridge these fundamental disparities through crowdfunding platforms such as Crowdfunder, Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which replace traditional means of capital investments and offer women alternate platforms to fundraise. In fact, research reveals that female entrepreneurs are almost ten times more successful in raising capital via online platforms than with traditional banks. ICTs also offer female entrepreneurs tools to bridge gaps in knowledge and training, through distance learning initiatives which support women’s continued education by affording them the flexibility to balance work and familial obligations. Women entrepreneurs have long been deemed engines of economic development, and harnessing their potential is vital to achieving sustainable growth. 

Due to lack of access to ICT assisted services, women spend a significant amount of time performing unpaid labour, such as running errands. Take grocery delivery, for example. Having groceries delivered from the nearest supermarket usually costs about 150/=. However I know many women who would personally go to the supermarket, stand in line and get their groceries while also paying at least 300/= in up and down three-wheeler charges. The same goes for banking, buying medicine, and other similar transactions. Enabling women to access e-services reduces the burden of unpaid care work on women, allowing them to use that time to pursue personal interests, sleep or do nothing at all. Women in developing nations spend an average of 3.4 times as many hours per day as men on unpaid work. Time poverty or the lack of discretionary or leisure time among women is real and it has severe repercussions on women’s economic development, health, wellbeing and overall happiness. 

Lack of access to mobile devices and the internet also means that it is harder for women to escape abusive relationships and protect themselves from domestic violence. During a recent conversation with a friend who was contemplating divorce, I recommended a few online resources she could use. She responded that it is impossible for her to access those as she does not have a smartphone; the only available option was to use her husband’s laptop to access the internet. It also makes it harder for women to maintain a support system of friends and family,  especially since digital communication is now the norm. Aside from these practical constraints, this lack of access to ICT and the resulting seclusion make it difficult for women to even realize that they are in an abusive relationship, as the abuser becomes their main source of information and, as a result, shapes their worldview.

Women’s political participation is also impacted by the digital gender divide. As a result of their lack of access to information, they are less able to make independent and informed political decisions. They rely on what the men in their families say about parties and candidates, and in most cases, they vote for the candidates that their husbands, fathers, or sons ask them to vote for. This, in turn, has an impact on women’s political representation, as female candidates frequently do not receive women’s votes even. Limited digital literacy, on the other hand, makes it difficult for women to launch successful online election campaigns, which play a critical role in current elections, and also helps women candidates avoid issues such as limited campaign finance and limited time to do on-the-ground canvassing.

Women’s activism is also hampered by the digital gender divide. Much of our advocacy work takes place online, especially during COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, girls especially did not have a safe space to openly discuss difficult issues such as gender-based violence, child marriage, gential mutilation, lack of access to reproductive health services, etc., which are rarely discussed on mainstream platforms. Women and girls can use online spaces to learn about their rights, seek services, share stories, and help their peers, all while building important networks of solidarity with each other. The anonymity the internet offers makes the exercise of autonomy, agency and dignity more possible for women as well, who often are punished for doing so in real life. As per Jac sm Kee, “Most importantly, it connects us. Allows us from becoming weird atomized individuals to find others who are interested in, care about, concerned about the same things. Enables us to organise, have conversations, plan for collective action, take things to different spaces, make shifts across the different layers of power, occupy different spaces. Because the characteristic of the internet, is essentially one that is networked. It is about connections. And the freedom to make connections, towards the shift and change we collectively believe in, is an important one”.

What can be done to bridge this gap?

The steps that can be done to bridge the digital gender divide are two fold, ones that should be done by the government and the ones that can be done by the private sector. 

One of the main steps that the government can take to bridge this gap is to expand educational opportunities for women and girls to improve their digital literacy. This could take many forms, ranging from targeted campaigns at schools to get more girls to pursue their studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to adult learning programs for women aimed at improving their digital literacy. STEM education opportunities for girls will also increase female labour force participation in the long run. Only 34% of Sri Lanka’s “total economically active population” are women (those who provide unpaid care not being counted in for this is a separate issue). According to a survey, 67.6% of 11-18 year old boys reported having internet access while only 33.1% of girls reported the same. This gender disparity has grave consequences for the future careers of these young IT users: “When asked, 25% of respondent boys hoped to gain employment in engineering compared to just 9% of girls. Moreover, 6.2% of boys hoped to find employment in IT or software-related industries, compared to just 1.9% of girls.”  The National ICT Workforce Survey of 2013 confirms that women constitute only 29.7% of the total ICT sector in the country. Increasing ICT access to girls at a young age should, therefore, be a policy priority when considering gender parity in the information economy. 

In terms of steps that the private sector can take, service providers can offer special data packages for women at subsided prices. Mobitel once offered a mobile phone bundle called “Liyasara” for women to meet the digital needs of resource-poor women. “Liyasara” customers had easy access to information relating to child psychology, cerebral palsy, maternal and newborn health, and cancer awareness, among other areas. Both Dialog and Mobitel ran campaigns to educate rural women about the advantages of using mobile internet for themselves, their families, and their communities. Dialog’s ICT programme, endorsed by the Ministry for Women and Child Affairs, has also hosted a series of workshops for women, discussing their personal development, online safety and entrepreneurial opportunities. While improving similar targeted activities for women, service providers should improve their internet coverage, address overall connectivity issues, and make data more affordable as all of this affects women’s access to ICT, as discussed above. 

Conclusion

It is clear that the digital gender divide has serious real-world consequences. This lack of access to the internet and devices translates into a lack of access to information, and if half of our population does not have access to quality information, they will be unable to adapt to a changing world, as the information we engage with determines our perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, which in turn determine our practices. It is also worth noting that the internet allows us to participate in shaping discourse and culture, which is arguably one of the most significant shifts in power. If women are to have a say in how the world is shaped and the history is written, they must participate in that power shift. Both the government and the private sector share responsibility for facilitating this shift. However, it has become clear that investing solely in technology is insufficient. To fully engage girls and women, approaches that combine in-person interactions, traditional media such as radio and television, and diverse digital platforms are required, particularly in remote or disadvantaged communities. Sri Lanka cannot achieve its desired status as a “regional ICT enabled commercial hub for South Asia”, if they are leaving women behind in the digital space.

Article by Nishadi Gunatilake
(The author can be reached via [email protected])

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation. 

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