Even With Billions Online, Digital Gender Divide Persists

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Around the world, women are using technology to overcome barriers in education and employment. Getting online, however, remains a challenge for many women in developing countries.

In the United States, the issue isn’t access to technology, but the lack of women pursuing technical careers.

Beginning Oct. 4 in Orlando, Florida, female leaders will discuss the digital gender divide at Voice of America’s town hall at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

“The tech ecosystem has, sadly, not been welcoming to women,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of ReadySet, a diversity consultancy that works in the tech industry.

Women struggle for access

Globally, women struggle for access to technology. Proportionally, the number of women using the internet is 12 percent lower, compared to men. In the least developed countries, only one in seven women is using the internet, compared to one in five men, according to a 2017 study.

“The digital divide is basically this phenomenon that some people have more access to digital technology than others or use it more than others, which is actually an unavoidable thing,” said Martin Hilbert, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. “Every innovation that comes to society doesn’t form uniformly from heaven. It diffuses through society.”

In a study of 25 countries in Africa and Latin America, Hilbert noted that if he adjusted for income, education and job opportunities, more women than men were online. “The fact that they turn up less is because they have less access to money, education and work opportunities,” he said.

Cultural barriers

Women also face some cultural barriers, said Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan.

The biggest reason she sees for why women are not getting online is what she describes as “the cultural norms or the family values.”

“The middle-class families or lower-class families think that access to computers or access to technologies is a boy’s basic rights and not the girls’ because the girls don’t need it,” she said.

Tara Chklovski, founder and chief executive of Iridescent, an organization that works to promote girls in tech worldwide, said her organization has worked with local partners to overcome barriers.

“There’s a country in Africa, where it is not cool for girls to own phones, only middle-age men,” she said. “When we came in and said we want to teach girls, they said why don’t you teach boys or why don’t you teach these men. We had to work for many years to address barriers.”

Women ‘held to higher bar’

In the U.S., there is a lively debate over why women continue to lag behind men in the tech industry. Women make up about 20 percent of companies’ technical workforce and about the same in leadership roles, said Caroline Simard, research director at the Clayman Institute of Gender Research at Stanford University.

“Often women are held to a higher bar to be successful,” said Simard. “They have to work harder to prove the same amount of competence.”

And when it comes to venture capitalists, who finance the startup ecosystem, not many are women.

“I joke in my profession, I don’t have to stand in line for a bathroom,” said Kate Mitchell, a partner at Scale Venture Partners. “Five to 10 percent of investing partners are women, depending what study you look at.”

VOA town hall

Women in tech roles inside a firm are at a higher risk of leaving the profession mid-career. Some say they felt they never belonged.

At VOA’s town hall at the Grace Hopper Celebration, leaders in technology will talk about what it will take to continue to close the digital gender divide.

“For the first time in history, technology can really help girls have a strong voice and help us have a society that has equality,” said Chklovski.

Deana Mitchell contributed to this report.

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