The problem of gender diversity in the tech industry — women being represented and fairly compensated in tech jobs — is one we hear about increasingly often. But outside of the western context, gender plays a dramatic role in how women access the Internet, period.
According to a new report by the World Wide Web Foundation — an organization started by Internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners Lee to help increase accessibility to the web — women in the developing world (specifically, in urban communities of poverty in Africa, Latin America and Asia) are 50% less likely to have Internet access than men. Even in communities where rates of mobile phone ownership are almost equal, women are still 1/3 less likely to use those phones to access the Internet. This information is especially damning given the Internet's capacity to improve women's economic situation and empower them via information and social networking.
The report finds that in many of these communities, there is a belief that men should have priority access to the web. Though not the leading cause of the gender disparity in Internet access, these attitudes are nonetheless eye-opening. In New Delhi and Manila, for example, more than half of men felt they had the right to control what women look at online, and almost 2/3 felt that women shouldn't be allowed to look at the Internet in public places. According to report author and Women's Rights Research and Advocacy Coordinator for the World Wide Web Foundation Ingrid Brudvig, men tended to believe more strongly than women that they should have priority to Internet access.
Women were also about 25% less likely to look for jobs online than men, which means by not having Internet access, women are missing out on opportunities for economic empowerment. Many women use the Internet to search for information about health, which means access is also tied to issues such as reproductive rights. "In many ways, I think access to the Internet mirrors so many other gender inequalities," Brudvig told BuzzFeed News.
The greatest barrier to getting women online, Brudvig found, was lack of education. Women repeatedly told the researchers that their reason for not using the Internet was that they didn't know how. When compared to men, women were 1.6 times more likely to say the reason they didn't use the Internet was "lack of skills." The report ties this finding to education — women who had been to secondary school were six times more likely than women with a primary school education or below to use the Internet.
Interestingly, this is not because women who don't attend secondary school miss out on digital literacy training, as such training is extremely rare across the board. Instead, the discrepancy is caused, according to the report, by the fact that graduates of secondary school are much more likely to have some level of fluency in English, the language in which most of the web is written. As one Indonesian respondent put it, "To learn about computer and Internet for me is very time consuming and it's hard to understand the language because mostly it is in English."
The report recommends that local governments create mandatory digital literacy curricula for primary school age girls. Enrollment in school is nearly 100% for younger girls; Brundvig said it's important to explain the potential social impact of the web to these young girls before their educations are cut short. "Digital literacy needs to go beyond the very functionalist approaches — this is how you log on, this is how you create an email address," Brundvig said. "[It] really needs to extend to looking at using the web. How to find an online course, how to find a job, how to connect with people who perhaps share your views."
A secondary barrier to women getting on the Internet is cost. Mobile data costs ten times more for the populations this report focuses than it does for people living in Europe and North America. One gigabyte of mobile data — enough for 13 minutes of surfing, according to the report — costs around 10% of a person's monthly income. Women, being globally financially disadvantaged and often economically dependent on men, are therefore less likely to be able to afford expensive Internet access. That situation is also compounded by the disparity in men's and women's education. If you can't read or write English, one great way to access web content is through video. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more data to deliver video content than text; in a way, even if they do have access, impoverished women in developing countries who don't read English are trapped in a text-based web that is effectively meaningless to them.
Lots of people are working on making data more affordable. The World Wide Web Foundation has an initiative of its own, called the Alliance for Affordable Internet, that works to reduce the cost of access. Companies like Facebook and Google also have projects underway with similar goals. But some of these programs, like Facebook's Internet.org, have been under fire in places like India (where it's now called Free Basics by Facebook) because they make it cheaper to use Facebook products than open web tools. Brudvig said women in the developing world who lack digital literacy skills are especially susceptible to being limited in their exploration of the Internet at large by companies that want to keep them on one platform.
"There's really a great risk of women logging onto Facebook and never getting beyond that to experience the potential of the whole open web," she said. "I think we really need to be clear that especially in many of these countries where the experience is majority Facebook, we need to be really clear that Facebook is not the Internet."
The Internet can be a hostile place for women — the report found that 7 out of 10 women ages 18-24 who use the Internet daily have experienced some form of online harassment. But the Internet can also be a powerful tool for accessing information, opportunities and people. The World Wide Web Foundation plans to continue researching how many women have Internet access, and what they do with it; in addition, the report urges government actors to also gather data, and make access for women a time-sensitive priority. While it's intuitive to think of gender disparity in Internet access as part of historic, systemic inequality, it's worth noting that even among young people ages 18 to 29, men are 30% more likely to have Internet access.