Assessing the Gender Dimensions of Digital Inequality for Policy Action

As part of the expert group meeting held in preparation for the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Research ICT Africa’s Dr. Alison Gillwald presented a background paper prepared with Dr. Andrew Partridge for the meeting, entitled “Assessing the gender dimensions of digital inequality for policy action”. The paper uses various multilateral and regional data sources and case studies to create a collage of available supply- and demand-side information at the international, regional and national levels to assess the implications of the uneven distribution of opportunities and harms associated with the processes of digitalisation and datafication and the intensifying outcomes of digital inequality. The paper highlights the deficiencies in the data available for evidence-based digital policy formulation to address gendered issues in digital accessibility and usability.

The paper also makes the linkages between existing digital inequalities as reflecting existing structural inequalities, and being exacerbated by advanced technologies simply being layered over these inequalities. With regards to the giant mobile networking datasets being used to track and mould people’s decisions and behaviour, the paper contends in line with some of the latest literature that, as long as digital inequality persists, these datasets cannot be unbiased or made ethical by design. Marginalised people, black people – and black women specifically – will continue to be invisible, underrepresented and discriminated against because there is simply no data on them available to unbias datasets.

Despite, or perhaps specifically because, it  is a quantitative review of the available data, the paper adopts an intersectional approach to understanding inequality. This is because gender is constructed differently over time and locations and because it is impossible to separate from race, class, culture and religion.

While it is true that it cannot be understood in terms of a discrete, quantifiable indicator or even a single area of social science, efforts to move beyond descriptive statistics allow for some demonstration of the various factors determining the exclusion of people living at the intersection of multiple inequalities, particularly gender. To reach policymakers and to inform and influence decision-making it is necessary to produce rigorous gender-differentiated data which will surface other gender inequalities and may isolate the exact points of policy intervention required.

At the international level there is evidence that internet penetration broadly tracks gross national income per capita and this is reflected in progress towards gender parity largely as a result of higher education levels. These are no direct correlations, however, and there are several anomalies indicating the impact of culture, religion and other less quantifiable factors on the participation of women.

Stark differences in the capacity to access the Internet are highlighted, across different regions, across different countries within regions, and across different groups within countries, suggesting the potential of policy to change digital outcomes. Although Internet access has been increasing in all regions of the world, progress in Africa still lags behind. This applies both to the scale of Internet access and to the inequalities therein as there appears to be evidence of declining inequalities as access moves beyond a critical mass.

Despite gains made in reducing gender inequalities in access to digital technologies, barring rare exceptions, female access is on the whole lower than for men, both for individuals and when looking at the gender ownership of small businesses. Even more so once the analysis looks deeper into the use of the Internet, as women users appear more likely to digitally substitute for social and communicative use cases and less so for productive purposes such as working from home, online business activities, platform work and learning.

The findings of the paper also highlight at a high level the heterogeneity of women around the world by assessing the differences which exist across different categories of individuals. Women in seemingly similar country contexts face very different outcomes in terms of equal access to and use of technology. Even within countries stark differences are observed for women accessing the Internet across factors such as geographic distributions, education, age and business formalisation.

In order to better understand the intersectional inequalities in terms of information and communications technology access and use and to ensure that technological developments have a reducing impact on current socio-economic inequalities, there is a strong need for deeper analysis of nationally representative individual-level data. The effective collection and provision of the necessary data to achieve this will require multilateral agencies, development banks and states to move beyond the rhetoric of statistics as a public good to ensure that standardised, non-proprietary data is publicly available for public planning, research and preferential commercial exploitation for marginalised groups.

The background paper can be accessed here.