According to Curtis Kularski [1
] (p. 5) “the digital divide is composed of a skill gap and a gap of physical access to Information Technology (IT) and the two gaps often contribute to each other in circular causation. Without access to technology, it is difficult to develop technical skill and it is redundant to have access to technology without first having the skill to utilise it”.
Kularski’s quote sums up the reiterative nature of the problem. More than two decades ago, apparent inequalities in Internet access gave rise to “concern that the new technology might exacerbate inequality rather than ameliorate it”, which resulted in analysts focusing on what has been called the digital divide between the online and the offline [1
] (p. 359). The digital divide is often conceptualised as the gap between those who have access to vital Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources and those who do not [2
]. Pippa Norris [3
] described the digital divide as shorthand for any and every disparity within the online community, including access between developed and developing nations, the rich and poor, and men and women within those nations. She further describes the digital divide as a democratic divide between those who do and do not use the panoply of digital resources to engage, mobilise and participate in public life.
Norris’s definition, which differentiates ICT access on the basis of “haves” and “have-nots”, has evolved and the digital divide has become a complex phenomenon that can be understood in a myriad of ways. Van Dijk and Hacker [4
] discuss the idea that access to digital resources is a multi-faceted phenomenon consisting of four factors that work to regulate access; psychological, material, skills and usage. What began as a simple concept of there being “haves” and “have-nots” in the digital world, has evolved into a finer-grain conceptual framework. Psychological access is where the user has little interest in gaining access, or has negative attitudes towards computers. Material access relates to not having the physical infrastructure. Skills access is where a person does not have the digital literacy skills to be effective on-line and usage access is where a person does not have the time or opportunity to access digital information, regardless of their skill level. The 4A perspective—awareness, access, attitudes and applications—focuses on digital gaps at the local/community level in addition to the national/global level, while the access-use definitions highlight the socio-economic factors, such as income and gender, that influence a person’s ability to access ICT [5
]. The knowledge gap hypothesis similarly posits that people of high socio-economic status are at an advantage because they find out about new sources of information first and because they can afford access to them while they are new [2
]. Purpose definitions, on the other hand, consider variables such as autonomy of use, social support and reasons for using the Internet [5
In each of these definitions, the digital divide is enacted in one of two ways: through lack of technical skill and/or through a physical limitation on access [1
]. The term “access” in regards to the digital divide was initially used to refer to whether or not a person could connect to the Internet. Access later became a synonym for “use”, at which time opportunity and choice were, unfortunately, conflated, as studies have since shown that more people have access to the Internet than actually use it [2
]. The majority of existing research on the digital divide has focused on inequality of access. Although this is important because it is likely to reinforce other inequalities, such as opportunities for economic mobility and social participation, a more thorough understanding of digital inequality is required that looks at the Internet in its broader theoretical context and considers how ICT’s impact on existing social inequalities [2
]. An exploration of how access to ICTs perpetuate or reinforce gender inequality in developing countries is one such example. In this case a developing, or less developed, country is a nation with a lower living standard and a low Human Development Index (HDI) relative to other countries [6
]. In contrast to developed or industrial nations, where women’s Internet access and usage often exceeds that of men’s, there is a prevailing gender digital divide in developing countries that warrants further exploration.
At the core of the digital revolution is the question of access to digital networks and, in particular, who gets empowered and who is informationally marginalised by the use of these new tools [7
]. Digital technologies could, potentially, enable women to overcome longstanding inequalities by providing employment opportunities and chances to increase income, in addition to access to cost effective health care and education. On the flip side, it has been argued that women are at a natural disadvantage because they are, purportedly, less tech savvy, more technophobic and the technology itself has not been designed to meet their needs [7
]. Although the definition of the gender digital divide remains deficit-focused, it has been tempered over the past decade with an acknowledgement that the divide is not simply an issue of access, but also of obstacles to Internet use [8
]. That is, as ICTs diffuse widely across the world it becomes less useful to look merely at the binary classifications of ICT “haves” and “have nots” because the provision of physical ICT products does not guarantee that individuals will have the necessary skills to enjoy the benefits brought by ICTs [9
2. Social Inequalities Faced by Women
The large majority of women (an estimated four out five [7
]) live in developing countries and they often suffer even more gender-related discrimination than their counterparts in developed countries; they are more likely to be unemployed and have fewer employment and educational opportunities [10
], with large numbers (approximately 60% according to UN statistics [5
]) ending up as unpaid family workers. These women are trapped in traditional family roles and lack the basic digital literacy skills that could allow them to achieve more of their potential [11
Role definition underlies many of the reasons why women do not make ample use of technology. In Southern India, according to Vinitha Johnson [12
] a woman’s existence is defined as a source of support for her family and the wellbeing of the family unit. Culture, the media and society define the roles of women and they are not generally encouraged to fulfil their individual needs, or pursue self-growth, even in educated families. Similarly, in Ghana, there is strong correlation between an individual’s work environment and access to digital resources. “While such access may seem gender neutral at face value, traditional gender roles, institutional structures and economic realities force disproportionate numbers of females into the informal sector where such opportunities for access are limited” [13
The percentage of women using the Internet lags behind the percentage of men using the Internet in developing countries across all age groups. However, highly educated women are a notable exception, as they reportedly use the Internet as much as men, suggesting that given an education and the means to do so, women will make just as much use of the Internet as men, refuting the assertion that it is lack of capacity that causes women to otherwise not use the Internet. Researchers who attempted to measure the gender digital divide in six francophone countries in West Arica (Benin, Burkina, Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal) found no gender gap in connectivity or usage among young women educated to secondary school level and beyond [14
]. This seems to indicate that education is a powerful tool in combating the gender gap in Internet access and use [15
]. However, it is well documented that women face challenges in gaining access to education at all ages because of a lack of time to attend school, familial and household duties and socio-cultural norms that give a low priority to education [16
]. As such, without careful planning, it is likely that ICTs will exacerbate differences between men and women as diffusion and use of ICTs and their benefits tend to follow existing contours of income and economic divides, with the poor being further marginalised or excluded [17
In this review, we gathered existing literature to address the following questions: (i) To what extent do women in developing countries access the online world; (ii) What factors impede and facilitate Internet access; (iii) What are the potential benefits to women in developing countries of being online; and (iv) What can reduce inequalities and facilitate Internet access for women in developing countries?
For this review, a literature search was undertaken by using the terms “gender digital divide”, “digital literacy”, “developing countries” and key phrases, such as “differences between women and men in ICT usage” and “gender differences in Internet access in developing countries”. Of particular use in the search was the Intel “Women and the Web” report and the World Bank paper: “Information and Communication Technologies for Women’s Socioeconomic Empowerment”. “Google Scholar” was also used to identify key resources. Many of the reports and briefing papers located in this manner yielded further results upon examination of not only the references used, but by following citations. In this way, the authors were able to follow the development of the key arguments in this field and identify the arguments with the highest impact. It is worth noting that, very little empirical research has been undertaken in the area of the gender digital divide and, as such, this review was reliant on Government reports and statistical data made available through various organisation, such as the United Nations, World Bank and Intel. Moreover, the initiatives outlined in this review are drawn predominantly from online newspapers and interviews with the founders of various organisations that have been established to address the gender digital divide. These proposed solutions, while appearing to empower women, have not been tested empirically to determine whether or not they are improving women’s access to ICTs in developing countries. More research is still needed in this space.
4. Internet Access for Women in Developing Countries
ICTs have become an irreplaceable tool in society. The number of people going online to conduct everyday activities, such as business and banking, education, seeking employment, civic engagement and forming and maintaining social relationships, is increasing every day. For many of us, being digitally connected is an integral part of our day-to-day lives and it is difficult to imagine having to function without Internet access. For certain groups of people, such as women in developing countries, the Internet has real potential to mitigate or even remove the barriers that have precluded them from participating more fully in digital society. However, although their lower starting point provides for greater possible gains, these women continue to face gender-related discrimination that prevents them from accessing the full benefits of ICTs [7
Few statistics on gender and ICT are available because many governments do not collect ICT statistics and rarely are they disaggregated by sex. Observational and anecdotal evidence [14
] have identified a gender component to the digital divide in developing countries, but there is little data to document it. In 2005, the Digital Opportunity Index was introduced with the aim of tracking the progress made in bridging the digital divide. The DOI was built on three themes—opportunity, infrastructure and utilisation—which are not gender specific. The DOI does not collect sex-disaggregated statistics; its stated aim is to assess infrastructure according to household data, which assumes equal access for all members of a household, thereby ignoring some of the fundamental constraints to ICT access and use for many women [18
]. As such, although it is evident that a gender digital divide exists in developing countries, it is difficult to know exactly how many women are accessing the Internet due to the failure of existing research to distinguish between opportunity of access and actual use of the Internet; socio-cultural factors are not taken into account.
According to Moolman, Primo and Shackleton [19
] the gender digital divide is one of the most significant inequalities amplified by the digital revolution. Of the few studies that have sought to address Internet use specifically, most have found that women in developing countries are significantly less likely to use the Internet than men. Women are estimated to constitute 25% or less of Internet users in Africa, 22% in Asia, 38% in Latin America, and a mere 6% in the Middle East [20
]. Less than 10% of Internet users in Guinea and Djibouti are women, less than 20% in Nepal and less than 25% in India. Only 20% of Internet users in Greece are women and slightly more than 25% in Portugal [14
]. In Africa (where the gender digital divide is thought to be the widest), in 11 of the 13 countries, more men than women use the Internet. In one of the most technologically advanced countries, Kenya, 21% of men and 11% of women (in the population sample used for this study) had used the Internet in August 2008. African women are also less literate: In Kenya, 77.2% of men compared to 68% of women. Fewer women are actively working or studying—81.4% of Kenyan men and 49.9% of women—and women generally have less income. While 29.8% of Kenyan men belong to the top 25% income group of the country, only.6% of women do. Controlling for these three variables (literacy, actively working or studying and belonging to the top income group) the gender digital divide disappears in most African countries. The results of this study suggest that the discrimination women face in many aspects of social life—employment, literacy and income—replicate the inequalities in ICT usage [7
]. Similar results have been observed in developed countries also. In a study by Ono and Zavodny [9
], a strong correlation was observed between digital inequalities in computer and Internet use and pre-existing inequalities. A higher GEM score (which indicates more gender equality), for example, is negatively associated with a gender gap in computer use and, inversely, gender inequality at the societal level is closely associated with a gender gap in computer use at home. This suggests that “pre-existing measures of economic and social inequality are reasonable predictors of inequality in IT usage” [9
] (p. 1147).
In a recent study undertaken by Intel [21
], in which 2200 women and girls from India, Egypt, Mexico and Uganda took part, it was found that 25% of women in developing nations lacked Internet access and this figure was as high as 45% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report highlights the stubborn gap in women’s access to the Internet in Africa, but also in the Middle East and other developing parts of the world. According to Elizabeth Weingarten [22
], there are two critical factors that influence whether or not women can access the Internet: availability and affordability. As such, one of the recommendations outlined in the Intel report was for policymakers and technology companies to make the Internet more accessible and affordable on mobile phones [23
]. It is estimated that, in developing nations, an Internet connection can cost up to 40% of annual per capita income, compared to just 1.7% of per capita Gross Net Income in wealthier nations. Weingarten notes that, while these barriers apply to both genders, they hinder women more than men because other cultural obstacles compound the problem. Internet cafes, for example, are an easy way to access the Internet but they are often impractical for women who cannot leave home for religious and cultural reasons [22
], and/or because they are intimidating for women due to low technological expertise and their belief that they are socially unwelcome [24
Although there appears to be problems in disaggregating sex-specific information regarding access and use of the Internet in developing nations, men undoubtedly have greater access to the Internet than women. However, given that Internet access exceeds Internet use by women in developing countries, more research is required to identify the barriers women face to taking advantage of the online world.
It is becoming increasingly clear from the various initiatives in developing countries around the world that women have the capacity, and in many cases the desire, to engage more fully with ICTs, yet for a range of socio-cultural reasons, for example traditional ideas of the place of women in society being domestic, women are being denied or are denying themselves access to technologies. The consequences of not having at least equal participation rates as men with Internet technologies are significant at both a personal and community level. If an otherwise capable woman is prevented from progressing beyond the traditional roles of child-rearing and housekeeping, she is unlikely to reach her full potential as a human being. At the community level and beyond, the impact of such women being unable to participate in economic activities will have a dampening effect on the often-struggling economies of these developing countries.
There is strong evidence to suggest that education is a solution. A woman who is educated to at least secondary level acquires both the ability and the desire to engage with the possibilities that Internet technologies offer, whereas a woman who is uneducated is more likely to subscribe to the traditional role of women and not engage with technology, regardless of their access to it. The increasing availability of high quality and often free education on-line is likely to improve this situation in a positive feedback loop. The more women engage with technology, the better educated they become and the more likely they will be to engage in activities that benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. They will then be more likely to undertake more of the kind of education that leads to improved living standards and a host of other benefits.
Working against the trend towards greater technology participation by women in developing countries are the deeply entrenched societal roles of women being primarily concerned with child-rearing and housekeeping. Any changes that occur will have to take place despite neutralising reactions within these societies that work to maintain the status quo. For future study, there is a clear need for research to be done to more fully understand the socio-cultural factors that both inhibit and encourage the engagement of women with technology. This understanding would be useful in devising strategies that incrementally improve the situation over time. This slow-paced approach may seem counter-intuitive, given the need, but arguably when dealing with age-old cultural practices, the slow and steady approach is more likely to succeed and produce long-term benefits than any effort at revolutionary change can produce.