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We’ll Never End the Digital Divide Without Content That Works for Women

Based on a recent report on the digital divide in Myanmar, Amber Ehrke of the International Research and Exchanges Board argues that a lack of perceived benefits of technology prevents women from using it, even as accessibility increases.

Written by Amber Ehrke Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A woman looks at her phone as she waits for her train to depart Yangon. Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

There are 250 million fewer women than men online, and the consequences of this gap are well documented. We often frame this gender digital divide in terms of access and affordability. But we talk less about the fact that many women, girls and their families simply don’t see a reason for women to use technology in the first place.

To reduce the gap, it’s not sufficient to make technology available, particularly for the most marginalized women and girls. Instead, we need to address cultural norms that stymie the creation of relevant content produced by and for women.

This is especially clear in Myanmar, which has seen an astonishing rate of progress in technology access, affordability and connectivity in recent years.

Since 2010, the cost of a SIM card has fallen from $1,500 to less than $1.50 today, vital in a country where only 3 percent of the population uses a computer. From 2015 to 2016, rural access to mobiles doubled. But over the same period, a steady 28 percent gender gap in mobile phone ownership remains – nearly twice the average for the Asia Pacific region.

Despite this dramatic uptick in access, despite cheaper phones, cheaper data and better service, Myanmar’s gender digital divide persists.

That’s partly because women are more likely than men to say they don’t have a use for a phone or the internet. When women do consider using technology, they need to weigh the expected benefits against their responsibilities, family budgets and available time. Too often, the available online content doesn’t measure up.

The Digital Skills Gap

Women and girls are more likely to share devices and less likely to use internet cafes or tea shops, which are often off-limits to women. This means they have fewer opportunities to practice using phones and the internet, so they don’t always have the skills they need to use new apps and online services.

Women and girls in Myanmar, especially in rural areas, tend to rely on male relatives or phone repair shops (mostly staffed by men) to learn to use phones and the internet, including setting up their email accounts and resetting their Facebook passwords.

In a series of interviews in Myanmar last year, I spoke to a developer who worked on an app for rural women. I downloaded the app myself, only to find that it required an account and a password. Each day, it emitted a series of exasperating push notifications that I never figured out how to turn off. So I deleted the app.

In this case, the app’s design set up a series of digital skills barriers – like the account and password – that disproportionately discourage women. As it turned out, men made up a significant proportion of this app’s users.

In another interview, I talked to a group of women and girls between the ages of 17 and 19 working in factories in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. The most tech-savvy among them said she owned a smartphone and had downloaded the Facebook app, but couldn’t use it because she was afraid she would break her phone if she tried to set up an account and password. Instead, she planned to get help from her older brother, who works in a phone repair shop in a different city.

These layers of access, affordability and skills challenges are further aggravated for women and girls with disabilities, those who are illiterate or who speak minority languages and for members of marginalized groups, including refugees and internally displaced people. They all face an additional layer of access and affordability challenges, and they’re even less likely to perceive an adequate return on their investment in devices or connectivity costs.

Changing Social Norms

The Myanmar case illustrates why we can’t look at the global gender digital divide only in terms of access and affordability. The digital divide mirrors and reinforces gender inequalities, and technology isn’t a distraction or a footnote to serious gender equality efforts. In fact, technology can amplify – or hinder – essential work to change social norms and support more equitable relationships and communities.

A young woman reads her mobile phone in front of a poster offering access to internet. (Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Norms often reinforce the idea that women are less skilled, less creative technology users. Gender equality work can transform this perception by giving women the space and support to create content and build digital skills. They can become confident role models in their households and communities and, eventually, help alter people’s perceptions of women’s abilities and roles.

But ignoring technology means perpetuating the gender digital divide – perpetuating a world where men have access to an entire category of resources that women don’t.

To avoid this, women need to be part of content production, not just passive recipients. All types of content – including digital content such as apps and social media, but also broadcast and print media – need to be produced by women and for women. This is true even in places where men, parents or in-laws significantly influence women’s decisions to buy or use phones.

Developers, writers and producers need to consider the circumstances, aspirations and skills of the women that they want to reach, otherwise those women will decide that accessing technology simply isn’t worth their time or money.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of News Deeply.


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