By Latika Arora
Gender discrimination against women in the digital ecosystem has had many harmful ramifications for them, which have been further amplified due to COVID. This article explores the causes and consequences of this divide and, most importantly, the solutions to bridge it through effective policies and measures to empower women both economically and socially.
What is the Gender-Based Digital Divide?
The digital ecosystem, which is the facilitating environment consisting of digital devices that provide people the ability to be a part of the virtual interface, is not a gender-neutral space. The discriminatory level of access to online resources for women conspicuously exhibits this. A Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) study finds that women are 7% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 15% less likely to use the mobile internet. This divide is especially stark in India, as it displays a gender gap of 40.4%, where Indian women are 15% less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33% less likely to use mobile internet services than men. In fact, India was noted to have the largest gender gap in smartphone ownership in 2018 globally, according to the Digital Economy Report (UNCTAD).
Where does it stem from and how has the pandemic affected it?
The Patriarchal Make-up of Society
This glaring divide is borne out of India’s patriarchal lean, with offline gender disparities now replicating on online platforms. Hegemonic masculinity considers men to be more mechanically and technically able, hence we see women employees occupying a scarce percentage in Tech Giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc., with an average of 19.6% women workforce in 2018.
Looking at an individual household level, women don’t have the bargaining power to seek out digital educational attainment or employment as men, statistically, earn more than their female counterparts. This financial dominance of husbands controls the digital usage of their wives, further leaving them out of the tech loop. Rural women are even more affected as due to the urban-rural digital divide, there is only 29% of rural broadband penetration as compared to the national average of 51% in India. Rural households spend a very small proportion of their already limited income towards internet services, not being privy to the benefits of digitalization, which has resulted in rural families preferentially providing their sons digital devices and data packs, and not their daughters. This display of partiality has increased with rising income restraints in the financial crisis times of COVID-19.
Women are also targets of cyberbullying more often than men —about 35% of women are victims of cyber-attacks globally. Marginalized women bear the brunt of this evil, as we see in the recent Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai cases where Muslim women were objectified and dehumanized, as well as in the Tek Fog case which predominantly harassed female Muslim journalists who were against the Bharatiya Janta Party’s political views. This further discourages women from entering the digital world as it drives them to take down their social media accounts and become fearful of virtual communication.
Exacerbation in the Pandemic
Government-imposed lockdowns have significantly increased traffic in the digital marketplace and digital adoption has rocketed in two months in 2020 by the amount that was expected in five years, which has led to a 500% increase in telehealth consultations, 100 million digital payment transactions within a day, and e-retail reaching 95% of districts in India. However, the boom in economic opportunities from the rapid expansion of the IT and service sectors has not translated into job opportunities for women and remains largely in favour of the male population. Therefore, the pandemic has highly exacerbated and magnified the consequences women face due to exclusion from digital infrastructure.
This digital divide leads to women being left unable to access digital opportunities, and with the increasing dependence on technology caused by the pandemic, the consequences of it have increased multifold.
Gender pay gaps worsen this problem, as while men can, on average, pay for a smartphone with a month’s salary, women would be required to work an extra ten days to purchase the same. This cost factor contributes to lower device ownership among women, and with education being shifted online in the pandemic, they are unable to obtain digital literacy. This further leaves them out of the large employment pool of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and related jobs, denying them financial stability and perpetuating the lower bargaining power held by them in their households.
These economic sufferings are not only faced by women but also shared with the country’s overall economic well-being since the internet contributes significantly to India’s GDP, reportedly a whopping $537.4 billion in 2020, boosted by the global upsurge in e-commerce during the pandemic. Thus, it has long-term irreversible impacts where women are unable to become economically empowered as well as contribute to the country’s economy.
Apart from the economic arena, the divide also has an impact in the social sphere, where women are left out of utilizing social security or upliftment schemes provided by the government. For example, this is preventing women from booking COVID-19 vaccination slots, especially in the case of Maharashtra. Even though the state government is providing cash support to domestic workers to get vaccinated, the female to male vaccination ratio is around 0.9, because women are unable to access or are unaware of the online registration process for such activities. This digital exclusion is also leaving them uninformed about critical life-sustaining information such as directions to survive the pandemic. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, 15% fewer women than men were able to access this necessary information.
Furthermore, widespread stereotypes that claim women aren’t good with technology are spread as a result of this digital illiteracy, through no fault of their own. Women who do have access to the internet, are unable to gain meaningful connectivity because of restrictions posed on them, like locational trackers for tracking their whereabouts and the men of the house supervising their internet activity.
Such adverse social drawbacks faced by women due to exclusion from internet access make this inequality a fundamental human rights concern that affects their overall social standing and wellbeing.
How can this divide be bridged?
Promoting digital literacy programmes among women
Targeted digital literacy training programmes should be promoted for the female population across all educational levels. Allotting specific percentages of resources or establishing quotas in national ICT policies for digital skill development, especially for rural women and other marginalized groups, should also be considered. This should ideally be done while keeping in mind skill training relevant to the resources available to them in order to ensure equal participation of women in the digital ecosystem.
While some endeavours have already begun to curtail this divide, for e.g.: the Mann Deshi Foundation which provides financial services that allow women to purchase digital devices at low costs, has helped women in Maharashtra to attain digital literacy, a mobile library for underprivileged women has also been created under the Human Development and Research Centre in Gujarat which allows them to borrow phones to learn digital skills, etc, there is still a long way to go to ensure equality in the digital world. Thus, deliberate intervention by the governing bodies in the form of such schemes is desperately needed.
Making digital facilities cheaper
According to Web Foundation research, countries with the highest internet costs as a proportion of average income have the largest gender gaps in internet use. This partly contributes to the wide gender digital gap in India, which is a lower-middle-income country where the price of data plans has increased by 7.5X on average from $0.09 per GB as per surveys conducted in 2020, making the internet less affordable and thus paving the way for digital access partiality for men over women.
Lowering the cost of digital devices and broadband expenses is a step that requires huge investment by the government and is direly needed in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of universal digital access. For this, public internet access facilities need to be low-cost or made free in marginalized areas, as they would also serve to provide digital training and skill development opportunities.
Effective Punishments for Cyber Crimes
The punishment rate in cyber-violence cases was reportedly 25%, as per a survey conducted in Delhi. This signifies that many perpetrators of online violence are able to get away with their harmful actions without suffering any consequences, even when we don’t consider that many cases go unreported.
This low conviction rate mainly arises from the administrative bodies’ failure to take cyber-crimes seriously and their lack of adequate resources to tackle this issue.
However, since it is one of the major reasons women avoid deeply indulging in the benefits the internet has to offer, it is imperative that effective measures are taken to control cyber-crime and hand out severe punishment to the crime-doers.
Making gender-disaggregated policies for fostering useful evidence-based action
Most countries do not take into account gender-based indicators for data collection and survey reports, which is also true in the case of ICT (Info and Communication Technology) data collection —only 10 out of 109 countries covered in the 2013 Broadband Commission Working Group on Gender Report have policies that consider gender-disaggregated data.
This begs the question: when the input itself is not gender-equitable, how can we expect the output, that is, the policies derived from it to be concrete in terms of gender equity? Therefore, there is a dire need to collect gender-disaggregated data, and not only that, but policies should also consider economic and social specifications that vary from country to country in order to overcome this gap at the grass-root levels. This will help in developing a more precise understanding of women’s participation activities in the digital world and thus creating better gender-centered and gender-responsive policies to address this issue.
Technology has become essential for day-to-day activities and offers life-transformative opportunities. Bridging the gender digital divide is imperative not only for breaking down the patriarchal structure of society and empowering women, but also for the economic progress of the country as the economy will be driven forward by the inclusion of women in the digital space. In conclusion, developing resources aimed at advancing technological skills and digital availability to ensure women are a part of the virtual world is a must in this digital age.
Latika Arora is a first-year student at O.P. Jindal Global University pursuing B.A. Economics (Hons.)