From the 'read-only-web' in the 1980s (Web 1.0), to the development of participatory, social media and e-commerce platforms in the 2000s (Web 2.0), to the disruptive Web 3.0, we are now in the third stage of the internet evolution. Web 3.0 ensures decentralisation, inclusivity and faster connectivity, but will this technology be accessible to all Indian citizens and especially to underserved and marginalised women and girls?
There is a yawning digital gender divide which cannot be overlooked or wished away. A recent report by Oxfam India called ‘India Inequality Report 2022: Digital Divide’ notes that 'Indian women are 15 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone and 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet services than men'.
For inclusive economic and social development, women must be empowered to leverage all the benefits that technology can offer. Post the pandemic, millions of female jobs are at a high risk of replacement on a global scale. Chances are that jobs of less-educated and low-skilled female workers will be automated. This should be a wake-up call for governments and industry leaders to address underlying issues that inhibit female digital literacy.
Here are some of the societal factors that need to be urgently addressed to bridge the digital gender divide -
Bridging The Digital Gender Divide
Inadequate Digital Literacy
Women's unequal access to education, lack of exposure and under-confidence in using digital technologies, restrictive social norms, and prejudices are some of the reasons that augment digital illiteracy. Digital literacy is one of the most sought-after skills for the current and future employment market and their lack will not only inhibit women's full participation in the economy but also widen the gender pay gap. Through digital literacy, women can also access digital financial services like e-banking and e-commerce platforms, which will further propel financial inclusion in the country.
Lack Of Affordability
The high prices set by the broadband markets are placing the internet market beyond the reach of billions of people around the world. In such a scenario, imagine the plight of women from low-income groups or practically no income. Financially dependent women may also need approval, permission and money from the earning members of their family, most likely to be men, to be able to access data or a broadband connection.
During the lockdown, the dropout rate of female students spiralled because in economically challenged households digital expenses and the lack of smart devices prevented them from continuing their studies. The pandemic has further adversely affected women's financial independence with more women than men falling off the labour map.
Increasing Cyber Crimes And Attacks
Spiralling cybercrime, including online harassment, forces even well-educated women to curtail their use of the digital space. Newspapers routinely report on job scams, online shopping fraud, identity thefts, revenge pornography, hate speech, trolling and sexual harassment targeting women. In a recent UNICEF report on the digital divide for girls, more than 50 percent of women globally have faced digital harm. The report also states that 68 percent of abuse takes place on social media platforms and this has severely restricted women from expressing themselves freely and fearlessly in the digital realm.
The Yawning Urban-Rural Divide
Oxfam India’s ‘Inequality Report 2022: Digital Divide’ has also stated that only 31 percent of the rural population uses the internet compared to 67 percent of their urban counterparts. This may be due to infrastructural and network inadequacies, lower income, religious, cultural and other social inhibitions, absence of equitable technological penetration, or erratic electric supply.
Internet availability in rural areas is either non-existent, poor, or intermittent. To add to these issues, there is always a gatekeeping process for women in a traditional and rural set-up, where their digital activities are always monitored by men. The mobile screen time of rural women is comparatively less when compared to those from semi-urban areas.
Women also face acute disapproval from families and societal restrictions when it comes to mobile phone usage. They may also be subjected to a ‘brilliance bias’ which is more often than not in the favour of men. They may have to battle the perception that men make better software engineers or experts in ICT (information and communications technology). The ‘Khap Panchayats’ in various villages in India restrict mobile phone use for women and impose an exorbitant fine if the diktats are disobeyed. Mobile phones, they think, would lead women and girls 'astray' and distract them from studies or household chores. Patriarchal attitudes also restrict women from going to community internet training centres to gain digital literacy.
The corporate sector, social organisations and the government should synergise and invest in upskilling and mentorship programmes for women. Making the internet a safer space for women is also essential for achieving digital inclusion. Outreach initiatives at the grassroots level can also help in addressing cultural norms, and educating families on gender equality and the importance of women pursuing technological careers.
As Anna Radulovski, entrepreneur and advocate for diversity in tech said, “To create a more diverse and inclusive tech world, we need to inspire and empower the next generation of female role models to pursue and develop their career in technology and become innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs.”
Authored by Gitanjali Singh, Head of Strategy and Client Success at Visionet BFSI. The views expressed by the author are their own.
Suggested reading: G20 Proposal: India's Digital Gender Gap And The Urgency To Bridge It