Why women need technology and technology needs women
Little more than three decades after the internet in the current sense was developed, more people access mobile and information and communication technology (ICT) networks than clean water and energy. Of more than three billion Internet users, two thirds live in the developing world and approximately 45 percent in Asia. However, 25 percent fewer women than men use the Internet, while women in developing countries are 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone. Even when women do access the Internet, they spend less time reading or exploring economic opportunities and more time socializing. Globally, women tend to embrace digital innovations more slowly. Women involved in IT do not surpass 20 percent almost anywhere in the world, and they are often perceived as technophobic.
Women are clearly missing out on the digital revolution: by 2015, an estimated 90 percent of formal employment across sectors will require technological skills, hence women´s lack of ICT literacy is likely to lead to a reinforcement of gender inequalities.
However, the story is not as straightforward as it appears. The most extensive empirical study conducted in this field considered datasets from 12 Latin American and 13 African countries collected over a three year period. The research showed that the reason why fewer women access ICT is a direct result of their unfavourable conditions with respect to employment, education and income. In short, women have less money to buy and less time to use technology as they work longer hours, including domestic work and care for others. Many women and girls are excluded from or limited in their access to the Internet by illiteracy and lack of education, a direct effect of unfavourable social norms. The digital gender divide stimulates a vicious circle where lack of practice translates into lack of technical skills and worse paid jobs with longer hours. But under similar conditions as men, women tend to be more active ICT users and embrace technological innovations at an equal or even faster speed.
Women need technology for the same reasons as men: to develop their marketable skills, enhance their economic opportunities, participate in informed decision-making, network, promote themselves as individuals or simply to have fun. Women need technology to participate in the modern world as equals.
There is another important reasons why specifically women – as the globally largest discriminated group – need technology: because online content tends to affect offline social norms.
Statistics confound the original understanding of the Internet as inclusive and gender-neutral and show that the use of ICT to be a gendered experience producing, for example, predominantly masculine content of online media. If women are excluded from the formulation of social norms at this stage of the digital evolution, their inclusion in the future will be even more complicated.
But with women´s proven technical skills and the potentially major positive impact on their well-being, the use of technology and especially ICT can be turned into an opportunity. Many initiatives support women´s empowerment through technology and online networking plays a critical role in the expansion of women´s networks. Various forms of digital expression such as blogging, amplify women´s voices and increase their self-esteem. Clearly, more gender-balanced access to technology has great positive potential.
Moreover, the inclusion of women in the technological evolution can translate into further benefits for society in general. This leads to other questions: ‘Why technology needs women?’ and ‘Why the world needs more women in technology?’
Firstly, the use of technology correlates with economic development. According to a 2009 World Bank report, every 10 percent increase in the use of broadband – such as optical fibre or wireless – in developing countries translates into a 1.38 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Simply by closing the gap between female and male users would present a tremendous benefit for the economies of many Asian, African and Latin American countries. The increase in women´s access to the Internet can promote efficiency of women´s work, simplify interaction with local and international markets, increase women´s education, and multiply and speed up the expansion of the online economy. An Intel corporation report calculating the economic effect of women´s digital empowerment predicts that 600 million additional female Internet users could result in a global GDP increase of between US$13 to 18 billion. This would also lead to the narrowing of global inequalities and promotion of a more sustainable development.
Simultaneously, technology can benefit from new and original perspectives and ideas introduced by women. Diversity brings innovation and enhancing women´s role in this field can boost the speed of its development. The positive effect of women-IT specialists can be multiplied by their potential to more effectively address and stimulate demand from female customers. Ernst and Young estimate that the impact of women on the global economy over the next decade will equal the impact of China´s or India´s population. Omitting women as customers and professionals can result in a substantial loss of revenues.
In summary, women need technology but also more women in technology are needed. ICT is not a panacea for women´s empowerment and inclusive sustainable development. But with the significant and fast-spreading impact of technology on individuals in the 21st century, ICTs are becoming an indispensable part of both and how we approach them will affect our lives.
Veronika Stepkova, Communications Officer | UN Women Cambodia