Akalisa is a 19-year-old student at a teacher training college in Rwanda. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, Akalisa struggled to access the online lesson materials even when she borrowed her neighbor’s smartphone. Now that she is about to enter the job market, she needs to register online get a job and pay for her teacher certification fee using mobile money. Akalisa is anxious that she is losing out on opportunities and will be left behind, especially by her male friends who access and use digital media more easily than her.
Whether an urban or rural dweller, formal or informal sector worker, teacher, principal, or student, digital skills are now an essential aspect of our daily lives, and it is important for everyone to be digitally literate. Digital skills are used from communicating or connecting with others, to searching for a job, finding information, in the workplace, studying remotely and doing business.
In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), there is a gender digital divide of 43% regarding access to the internet. According to UNESCO, only 21% of women in Kampala and 20% in Nairobi use the internet, compared to 61% and 57% of men, respectively. This gap is due to factors such as lack of digital skills, poor access to internet, divisive social norms and stereotypes, and general unaffordability of data and devices.
Africa’s digital economy is expanding fast. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates that 230 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa will require digital skills by 2030, and nearly 65% of individuals recruited for jobs at African companies require at least basic digital skills. Rapid expansion, if not targeted for equity, can lead to widening gaps between different sections of the society. It is well established that the labor market returns for women with ICT skills are higher than the returns generated by other skills, and the cost of keeping women and girls offline is estimated to be around $1 trillion. Providing digital skills to girls and women is clearly the smart thing to do!
Increasing education attainment helps narrow the digital divide
With each education level attained by girls and women, the gender gap in digital skills decreases. Completion of higher education leads to most equitable access and use of internet among women— around 80% of female higher education graduates use the internet.
Unfortunately, most girls do not get through a complete cycle of basic education. Only a third of African girls and boys of the right age are currently enrolled in secondary education, significantly below the global net average of 66%. Inadequacy of physical and digital infrastructure pose significant barriers to equitable access to education. With the largest share of global out-of-school population, especially of girls, SSA will struggle to manage and capitalize its investments in expanding the digital economy. It is crucial to provide both girls and boys with foundational literacy, numeracy, and digital skills to enable SSA to truly achieve its digital transformation agenda.
Girls need a stronger push to overcome the compounding socio-economic challenges to transition beyond the basic levels of education. Their uptake of and retention in further training or job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is even harder. In some SSA countries, increasingly more women are pursuing STEM careers. They represent over 30% of STEM graduates (the global average) in Cabo Verde, Rwanda, and Madagascar; while in Ghana, Mozambique, and Niger they represent 20% or less. However, even when women graduate, there is a “leaky pipeline effect” as they are more likely than men to shift out of STEM careers once in the labor market.
So, what can be done?
To support girls and young women in SSA, we propose some policy recommendations that can promote their participation in and use of digital skills training:
Start early: Research shows that changes in girls' self-efficacy around digital skills occur at upper primary levels and become more pronounced as they progress through secondary school. Therefore, encouraging girls' interest in and use of ICT at an early age is crucial.
Be holistic: To encourage girls in ICT, a comprehensive approach is necessary. This involves aligning various components such as teacher training, communication campaigns and advocacy, support for continuing education, access to the right equipment and infrastructure, and engaging the wider ecosystem, including the private sector. This is because changing mindsets is a complex undertaking that requires engaging the community, parents, teachers, and students themselves. The following components are critical:
- Teachers: Gender awareness modules should be included as part of teacher professional development and ongoing training on digital skills to address any exclusionary practices that could affect girls. For instance, teachers should allocate equal time with devices to both boys and girls. Additionally, having more female STEM teachers at secondary and tertiary levels should be encouraged.
- Communications: Campaigns and advocacy should target girls and their families to raise interest in STEM and explain the tremendous opportunities available for girls. They should emphasize real-life use and tangible benefits of digital skills, address concerns and fears, and emphasize how digital skills can help increase girls' security online.
- Higher education, STEM, and jobs: Empowering girls through cash transfers, paying fees at lower levels, and providing scholarships at higher levels have proven impactful. At post-secondary level and beyond, strong mentorships and networks promote persistence in STEM fields among female graduates. Role models provide examples of success that girls and young women can aspire to, witnessing that someone from their community or region is pursuing that career path.
- Access to right equipment and infrastructure: Schools with labs, devices, learning materials (including digital libraries) where girls and boys can learn in an engaging and collaborative way are necessary.
- Engagement with the wider ecosystem: The private sector can play an important role by providing financial support (for devices and infrastructure), promoting communities of practice, and providing information that countries can use to reduce the skills mismatch. Additionally, at the government level, a multisectoral approach should be pursued, involving the ICT and energy sectors.
To help millions of women such as Akalisa reach their full potential and succeed in their careers. We must prioritize education and training programs that empower women and girls with the digital skills they need to thrive in a rapidly changing digital landscape. This will support them in the ICT or STEM intensive sectors or will give them a strong advantage in any other field they may choose to pursue. By doing so, we can unlock the potential of millions of women and help build a more inclusive and equitable society.