Published on Digital Development

Achieving universal and affordable access by closing the digital gender gap

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A female smartphone user in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. Photo: Dorte Verner/World Bank
A smartphone user in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. Photo: Dorte Verner/World Bank

The world is unfortunately missing one of the most pertinent targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this year—a target for universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020. As of today, nearly half of the world is still offline—many of whom are women from developing countries. In fact, at the current rate of internet growth and adoption, universal affordable internet will not be achieved until 2043. Achieving the universal access goal, therefore, will require closing this global digital gender gap.

Women around the world face barriers to internet access, including inability to afford to connect, limited digital skills, and social and cultural barriers preventing them from the opportunities provided by connectivity. Access to the internet is power, yet more than two billion women and girls are silenced, unable to access key resources, information, and opportunities that come with an internet connection. More than ever, gender disparities in internet access and use are further marginalizing women and ultimately will undermine efforts and goals to foster a more gender-equitable world.

At the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the Web Foundation, we understand that technology is not gender neutral, nor are the policies that guide its development and use. Policies must be developed with measures to keep the long-term benefits of promoting wider and targeted availability of—and access to—the internet for all, especially for today’s unconnected populations. Investment in digital skills education for women and girls is also important so that they have the agency to exercise their full rights and freedoms flexibly as active citizens once online. To this end, we contribute to helping address the digital gender gap through the following ways:


Producing evidence on the digital gender gap

Any policy change must be grounded on evidence. A4AI and the Web Foundation continuously produce evidence-based research around the impact on gender and ICT policy.

We conduct digital gender gap audits of low and middle income countries to assess the policy efforts and progress made on a national level to close the digital gender gap by tackling access, affordability, digital skills, relevant content, and online safety. On the topic of affordability, we also ask how the picture looks different for women; for instance, we’ve looked at the impact of social media taxes on gender.

We advocate for a women-centered approach to measuring the digital divide—calculating the gap as the difference between the internet penetration rate between men and women, as a proportion of internet penetration rate for women—so that policymakers can set a more ambitious, yet impactful, target for improving access and use for all through their policy goals.


Advocating for gender-responsive ICT policymaking

To enable more women and girls to come online, we advocate for and train policy makers on how to design gender-responsive ICT policy—one that equally considers and addresses the connectivity challenges and needs for all groups in society, and takes into particular consideration the unique challenges faced by women when it comes to accessing and using the internet.

We have equipped over 60 policymakers from Eastern, Southern, Western Africa, and Asia on gender-responsive policymaking through a series of capacity building workshops. Working with decision makers and government actors, we helped develop gender responsive policy and targets aimed at digital equality across all ICT/broadband strategies, policies, plans and budgets.

Through the Africa Summit for Women and Girls in Tech series, A4AI and the Web Foundation have created a space for over 300 industry, government, and civil society representatives from across Africa to come together and devise gender-responsive policies and approaches needed to enable millions of African women and girls to benefit from access to technology and use their skills to build a better Africa for all.


Empowering locally-driven digital skills initiatives for women and girls

The Web Foundation launched and implements the Equals Digital Skills Fund with the Equals Partnership and the German Development Cooperation to support grassroots initiatives leading digital skills programs targeting women and girls in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Meet the diverse and inspiring grantees from 2019 and 2020.


There is more that needs to be done in order to globally close the digital gender gap. And innovative solutions already exist throughout the world. That’s why the World Bank and CES’s Global Tech Challenge: Solutions for Women is so relevant—so that the innovative solutions get the right recognition and support to amplify their work. A4AI and the Web Foundation look forward to meeting the winners of the Challenge and seeing how the winning solutions will help achieve universal, affordable access for all.


Sonia Jorge

Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Head of Digital Inclusion Program, Web Foundation

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