The Digital Gender Divide Won’t Close by Itself – Here’s Why

The gender gap in the use of digital technology has narrowed in recent years, but women continue to be at a disadvantage. For instance, today in low- and middle- income countries there is a gender gap of 8 percent in phone ownership and 20 percent for smartphones. While there is often an assumption that the gender gap will disappear on its own as digital technologies become more widely available in a market, the reality is that men and women engage differently with digital services – including digital financial services (DFS) – because of, among other factors, gendered social norms that don’t change nearly as fast as technology.

A woman holds her mobile phone and gazes into the distance in Sudan.
Photo: Hesham Fathy, 2019 CGAP Photo Contest

Social norms are shared expectations held by a community or society about how people should behave in certain environments. Gendered social norms, a subset of social norms, prescribe different roles and expectations to men and women in households, communities, markets and public life. For instance, women are often expected to stay home and care for their families instead of owning assets or running large businesses.

Gendered social norms can also restrict women’s ability to access and benefit from DFS. CGAP has been researching the digital divide out of a concern that advances in DFS could potentially exacerbate, rather than close, gaps in the access and use of digital technology between privileged and underprivileged groups around the world, including women. Our research highlights four key dimensions of the digital divide: access to handsets, internet connectivity, infrastructure, and literacy and data availability.

New tech and social norms pullquote

It might be tempting to think of these dimensions as gender neutral. After all, handsets are handsets regardless of who’s using them. When infrastructure is built, it covers large areas home to both men and women.

But the reality is that gendered social norms are at play in each of these dimensions. They affect the actions, perceptions and expectations of individuals and groups and give rise to gender-specific constraints in people’s financial lives. When working to advance financial inclusion, we cannot divorce new technologies from the norms that influence whether and how people use them. For example:

  • Access to handsets. Negative stereotypes about women’s mobile phone ownership and usage exist in some societies and can put pressure on families to limit their access to and use of mobile phones. A 2018 Harvard study in India identified a fear within society that women’s mobile phone use would enable promiscuity or erode traditional Indian courtship norms, potentially helping to explain the country’s 26 percent gender gap in mobile and internet access.
  • Internet connectivity. Poor connectivity is a common challenge in many countries. People who live in remote areas may need to leave their homes or village to get a signal. But prevailing social norms around women’s mobility and safety may demand that women stay at home or be accompanied when they travel. Women may also be expected to prioritize caregiving responsibilities over using phones to access the internet or conduct financial transactions.
  • Infrastructure. Similarly, poor access to utilities like electricity often force people to charge their mobile phones outside of the home, which apart from conflicting with social norms around mobility, may require women to have the time and money to get to a local store and charge up. Furthermore, the “smarter” a phone is, the more battery it consumes and the higher the cost to recharge. A study of mobile phone use and women's empowerment in Maasai communities found that these challenges forced some women to leave their phones uncharged for days on end. In certain contexts, norms concerning the acceptability of interacting with members of the opposite sex can limit women's ability to use DFS agents, who are often male.
  • Literacy and data availability. As documented by CGAP’s research in Pakistan, social norms can limit women’s attendance at school and, in turn, their literacy and ability to navigate a mobile phone. The FinEquity community of practice’s work on digital financial literacy further explores this issue in the course of looking at how factors like literacy, numeracy, consumer awareness, product design and access affect women’s uptake and use of DFS. Likewise, restrictive norms around women’s ability to work and have economic control can make the cost of data a barrier to accessing digital services.

The digital gender divide is unlikely to close by itself, given that it is largely driven by normative barriers. Despite some progress, the digital divide has remained steady or is on the rise in many countries, which strongly suggests the need for more gender-intentional approaches to financial inclusion that consider the normative barriers to women’s access and use of DFS.

Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need right now to ensure digital cash transfers meant to help people through the crisis are intentional about addressing the normative barriers faced by women, who are disproportionately impacted by this crisis. As the 2013 to 2016 Ebola crisis showed, there is always the potential for the “tyranny of the urgent” to cause stakeholders to deprioritize gender analysis and action.

Longer-term, it will be important for the financial inclusion community to focus on addressing the social norms underlying the various dimensions of the digital divide, starting with access to handsets.

For example, according to CGAP analysis on GSMA data, by 2025, virtually all mobile connections — across regions — will be on 3G or even faster networks as smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous​. However, CGAP projects that a gender gap will remain on both smartphone uptake and mobile data use, and that 25 percent of mobile connections in less developed countries may remain on a basic or feature phone. Without a gender-intentional approach, these remaining gaps are likely to disproportionately affect women living in extreme poverty.

For women, smartphones can open up significant opportunities, but access isn’t inevitable. Without specific targeted efforts to get phones into the hands of the most vulnerable women we will not make the requisite progress for women’s financial and livelihood opportunities. Efforts to address the digital gender gap are costly, time intensive and require creativity. Where have we seen great examples of such efforts?

What do you think is the best approach to closing the digital gender divide? What efforts have you seen work? In the comments below, please share your thoughts and experiences. In particular, please let us know if you are aware of any initiatives that have attempted to improve access to devices by giving them away or reducing prices. In a follow-up blog post, we will explore such efforts and their success to date.

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