Confronting the gendered digital divide

January 10, 2021

More than ever before, women’s empowerment and greater inclusion in the digital world are integral to gender equality

The gender digital divide (GDD), one of the worst and the most prominent and socially relevant divide, has become even more acute during the pandemic, causing disruption in the balanced and smooth flow of technology to women. The reasons for this disparity are numerous; ranging from reptilian mind-sets and social behaviours to economic dependency and professional inequality to name a few.

In the context of Pakistan, where the pandemic has played a significant role in barring women’s engagement in academic and professional activities, the GDD has been even more pervasive and detrimental to women’s empowerment and freedom of choice. The narrative that follows briefly underlines the reasons of women’s under-representation, and in some cases exclusion, from ICT (information and communications technology) or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and suggests ways which can possibly be used to counter this.

When it comes to the distribution of digital paraphernalia and skills, the opportunities for a woman to access technology as well as her preparation for using it remain meagre. The problem with underdeveloped and developing countries is not merely who can make an effective use of technology; it is also whether a person can even afford the ‘luxury’.

A woman, in this case, is subjected to social inequality since even before her struggle for digital empowerment starts, she has to demythologise certain associations labelling her gender. This struggle, in fact, is universal and geographically unhinged. For the same reason, we, or perhaps more accurately, the previous generations, experienced technology in images that were predominantly masculine. The advertisements in the ’80s and ’90s showed father-son duo strengthened by a PC promising a successful future. The global digital divide is more than a local phenomenon; it is an ideology deeply rooted in the collective ethos.

Many questions surface when we observe how certain professions, actions, and qualities are associated with the gender binary. Although professional diffusion in all genders is improving, it may still be very common to assume a pilot, an engineer, a captain, a computer programmer or an IT professional to be a man. Similarly, a woman in the role of a teacher, a doctor or a nurse fits well in certain social moulds.

STEM education, despite undergoing major gender shifts over the last ten years, is still predominantly male-driven. For the same reason, most of the engineers designing the buildings, layouts of circuits in our smart phones, operating systems, running the internet, or even deciding the predictive text that assists in typing, are mostly men. Such normalisations have enabled societies to maintain the existing power structures in terms of gender.

Apart from these normative assumptions, technology itself is a victim of bias in the hands of men. The inception and design of technology is per se gendered. It shuts women’s perspective on the product; thus, making it a right fit for male consumption. A good example is video games which for a long time catered only to the interests of boys with perhaps an assumption that girls are either not interested in them or not smart enough to play them well. The early adopters of the internet have been mostly men. In the third decade of the 21st century, improved digital participation of women is threatened by cyber-bullying and identity moratorium leading to harassment, exploitation and abuse.

Apart from age-old psychological constructs, a major hurdle in bridging the GDD is the inherent fear women experience while engaging with the technology. Men are more willing to take risks, experiment with new technology, try something new, ignore the failures and start anew, as compared to women. This fear has been built and perpetuated to cap women’s creativity and self-actualisation.

Given the lack of representation and dearth of women mentors in technology, the domain remains male-dominated. In the history of software development, women have made important contributions but we have only recently begun acknowledging their work.

While things are improving on this front, social attitudes make it obvious that the gender divide and unequal division of educational and professional opportunities existed even before we were hit by the pandemic, which might have just exacerbated them. Although it has been some time since global efforts to empower women digitally were initiated with events like as the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 at Beijing, it is only recently that ICTs are being regarded by international organisations as a powerful tool for promoting gender equality. Consequently, the Action Plan adopted by the Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, developed under the umbrella of United Nations in 2001, included a strong gender perspective to highlight the areas for improvement.

In the global context, inspiring endeavours are under way to promote digital tools to close the digital divide. Founded in 2010, W4 - Women’s Worldwide Web has been actively engaged in empowering women and improving their participation through IT skills training. While providing opportunities to budding women entrepreneurs to introduce their own projects, the platform takes a keen interest in making digital and mobile technologies and the internet available to women along with the provision of opportunities to them to find and share information, interact, collaborate and network and to enable upward socioeconomic mobility.

Girls Code Lincoln, another non-profit organisation has been striving since 2017 to ignite passion for technology and leadership in young girls with an aim to minimize or close the gender gap in STEM. Through creative and fun methods, the organisation encourages girls to believe that these areas are meant for them as well. The organisation aims to build confidence and motivate by providing young trainees with mentors who act as role models for them.

SmartUp factories created under Plan International have helped Uganda’s marginalised youth and girls to unlock their digital potential. These innovation hubs prepare young people to identify technology gaps and come up with innovative solutions to bridge those. Starting from basic skills such as typing and writing emails, printing documents, scanning and making copies, the incubates are taken to the level of experts where they are taught to develop smart phone apps and program hardware.

The Finnish app Sheboard is another example worth mentioning. Plan International, in collaboration with Samsung, designed the predictive text app in 2018. Aware of the permanently ingrained psychological divisions, the designers created a predictive text service that will make people aware of the inherent biases in how we see women and men. By offering options like “brave”, and “smart” before say, “pretty”, for sentence completion, the app highlights potential and abilities.

These global endeavours to bridge the GDD clearly indicate the need for more efforts at grassroots level in Pakistan. While prioritising education and training for girls in ICT is a responsibility of the state, it also requires efforts made on humanitarian basis and through philanthropic projects which should aim to enhance the technology quotient of girls. More than ever before, women’s empowerment and greater inclusion in the digital world is integral for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The country needs a digitally gender-inclusive work force to make its mark internationally.

The author has a doctorate in Nigerian Drama. She serves at the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Management and Technology, Lahore, as assistant professor and chairperson

Confronting the gendered digital divide