Digital gender gap ‘keeping women offline’ and costing billions, finds report

A failure to ensure women have equal access to the internet has cost low-income countries $1tn (£730bn) over the past decade and could mean an additional loss of $500bn by 2025 if governments don’t take action, according to new research.

Last year, governments in 32 countries, including India, Egypt and Nigeria, lost an estimated $126bn in gross domestic product because women were unable to contribute to the digital economy.

The digital gender gap – the difference between the number of women and men who can access the internet – cost $24bn in lost tax revenues in 2020, which could have been invested in health, education and housing, said the report.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former executive director of UN Women and founder of the Umlambo Foundation, said: “We will not achieve gender equality until we eliminate this digital gap that keeps so many women offline and away from the opportunities the internet provides.”

The study, conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), looked at 32 low- and lower-middle-income countries, where the gender gap is often greatest.

In those countries, a third of women were connected to the internet compared with almost half of men. The digital gender gap has barely improved since 2011, dropping just half a percentage point from 30.9% to 30.4%. Globally, men are 21% more likely to be online than women, rising to 52% in the least developed countries, said the report.

Various barriers prevent women and girls from going online, including expensive handsets and data tariffs, social norms that discourage women and girls from being online, fears around privacy, safety, and security and a lack of money – globally, women earn around 77 cents for each dollar a man earns.

Few governments have implemented specific policies to give women easier access to the internet, added the report. According to the A4AI’s 2020 Affordability Report, more than 40% of countries had no meaningful policies or programmes to expand women’s access to the internet.

Catherine Adeya, director of research at the World Wide Web Foundation, said: “As the internet becomes a more potent enabler for education, business, and community mobilisation, a failure to deliver access for all means failing to realise everyone’s potential to contribute.”

As well as limiting opportunities for women and girls, digital exclusion of women has broader societal and economic impacts that affect everyone; with hundreds of millions fewer women able to use the internet, the world is missing out on the social, cultural, and economic contributions they could make, the report said.

Boutheina Guermazi, director of digital development at the World Bank, added: “Investing in a more inclusive digital future gives leaders a tremendous opportunity to promote economic growth while creating healthier societies by addressing inequalities in education and earning power.

“For governments looking to build a resilient economy as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans, closing the digital gender gap should be one of the top priorities.”

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