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  • Writer's pictureAnna Collard

Africa's digital gender gap

Updated: May 9, 2022

One thing I really love about my current role is that I get to learn about new things all the time. Sometimes it can be quite nerve-racking, such as when getting invited to sit on a panel about topics that I really don’t know anything about (yet). These situations provide the necessary anxiety to read as much as I can and explore rabbit holes I had no idea even existed the day before.

And exactly that happened last week. I got invited to join a panel discussion on cyberfeminism hosted by the lovely Sanjana Rhati from the CyberDiplomat. To be honest, I had to google the term cyberfeminism as I wasn’t sure what exactly it stood for. And into the rabbit hole, I fell. I also learnt a lot from my amazing co-panellist, award-winning journalist Kiki Mordi. If you are interested, there is a recording of it on YouTube. By the way, if you are wondering, here are two decent definitions I found for the term cyberfeminism:

  1. a philosophy which acknowledges, firstly, that there are differences in power between men and women specifically in the digital discourse: and secondly that we want to change that situation (Hawthorne and Klein, 1999)

  2. empowering more women and queer persons – in all our diversities – to fully enjoy our rights, engage in pleasure and play, and dismantle patriarchy

Why does this matter a great deal?

According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, “women will be the most vulnerable when it comes to job losses in the future. Why? Because many of the opportunities the fourth industrial revolution will offer are internet-based. With the increase in automation, those working in “routine intensive occupations” – such as secretarial, care-worker or call centre work – are considered likely to be replaced by machines. Women typically occupy these types of professions.

Yet, as a recent study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has shown, women are using the internet in Africa a quarter less than men and according to a study by the World Wide Web Foundation (admittedly a bit dated: 2015) women in poor, urban communities are 50 per cent less likely to use the internet. According to the same survey, women are also 30-50 per cent less likely than men to speak out online, or to use the web to access information related to their rights.

So this digital gender gap is a thing. And if this trend persists, a large proportion of women are at risk of losing out on tomorrow’s digital job opportunities.

“Closing the digital gender gap is not just a moral cause, it is also an economic imperative.”

According to the Web Foundation report released this year, emerging economies have lost an estimated USD $1 trillion in GDP in the last decade as a result of barriers preventing women from accessing the internet and participating online.

While reading about this topic, and I’ve literally just scratched the surface - two major root causes seemed to emerge:

1. Patriarchy.

Or rather the persistence of patriarchal norms and attitudes. The book ”Invisible women” by Caroline Criado-Perez argues that the lack of “big data” on women is equivalent to silencing half of the world’s population. This can result in life-and-death consequences when for example, the lack of disaggregated data (meaning differentiating between men and women) in medical research about symptoms of heart attacks result in the wrong treatment of female patients. Or the fact that crash test dummies are modelled on the average male size, ignoring smaller female body types.

It is not about bashing a male-dominated society. Ms Perez admits she cannot prove why the gender gap exists. But it does exist. And her extremely well-researched book has a lot of data to prove it.

Like in other areas, the problem of the digital gender divide is a systemic one and related to patriarchal believes and attitudes amongst all of us, but it is exceptionally persistent in African countries. And these attitudes are spilling over into the digital space.

There are deep ingrained systemic barriers, based on patriarchal thinking, such as the example Kiki shared with me about the fact that in Nigerian schools recognition doesn’t go to the two best kids in class, but to the best boy and the best girl. This means that if the “best scoring boy” has a let's say 75% he will be recognized and set up for potential bursaries, even if there are girls ahead of him in the 80 or 90 percentile, who remain unrecognized.

According to a survey by the OECD, beliefs such as ‘men have priority over women when it comes to accessing the internet and ‘men have the responsibility to restrict what women access on the internet’, were articulated by three in every ten men interviewed, and interestingly, two in every ten women. Such gendered norms are difficult to measure, which could lead to them being overlooked in policy discussions about Africa's digital future.

Most countries are not doing enough to stop online violence against women, particularly on the African continent. But they really should, as shockingly, according to Amnesty International researchers, women of colour were found to be 34% more likely to be targeted by online hate speech than their white counterparts.

According to research published by Pollicy “African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet,” 39.3% of African girls were concerned or very concerned about their online safety and have experienced online violence or attacks.

2. Digital literacy and Education.

The second theme is education which is highly linked with internet use. ‘Not knowing how’ was the barrier most widely cited by poor, urban women. A lack of understanding of how to protect themselves online is another barrier keeping African women offline.

A lot of countries still do not provide internet access in schools, teacher training in ICT or cybersecurity. In 2020 we ran a survey across 445 African teachers and on the question as to whether cybersecurity is offered as a subject in schools, only a paltry 3.7% answered with the affirmative. This 3.7% indicated that it was optional, 25% said it was somehow included in the IT curriculum, but the overwhelming majority of respondents (67.6%) said that cybersecurity was not taught as a subject at all. In order to prepare to take advantage of online opportunities, it is critical for schools to offer digital skills training and cyber security basics as fundamental life skills.

What should be done about it?

The Women’s Rights Online (part of the World Wide Web Foundation) outlines the following steps that should be taken by policymakers to address the digital gender gap and build an inclusive internet for us all:

  1. Strengthen women rights online and offline,

  2. Invest in digital skills and data literacy education,

  3. Ensure that all citizens have affordable and meaningful access to the internet,

  4. Stimulate supply (and creation) of relevant content and services for women online,

  5. Adopt and integrate concrete gender equity targets into national ICT policies,

Personally, I feel that this is an issue that needs a lot more awareness. I’m a female operating in the cybersecurity space for many years and I have not been consciously aware of the extent of the digital divide and the impact this has on our societies until very recently.

So the question is, what needs to be done to make policy decision-makers more aware of it?

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