The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the world into the digital realm, quite forcibly so, to allow for the continuation of certain aspects of daily life. While this digital shift created opportunities for information sharing, learning, and the hybrid work-from-home option, it has also raised concerns about the digital divide that threatens to leave some behind.
This year, International Women’s Day focuses on the pertinent theme of DigitALL Innovation, urging leaders to examine the impact of the digital gender gap on the increasing economic and social inequalities.
The UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report revealed that excluding women from the digital world has caused low- and middle-income countries to lose $1 trillion from their gross domestic product in the last decade, a loss projected to grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025. Considering South Africa’s reining title as one of the most unequal countries in the world, digital gender inequality carries more pervasive consequences.
“Access to digital technology is hindered by a lack of affordable technological appliances, digital education & understanding, and internet affordability. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, leaving vulnerable groups excluded from online education, job opportunities, and online recruitment avenues.
“The digital exclusion of a large segment of the population will undoubtedly have devastating effects on social and economic development and transformation”, states Evan Jones, an expert in ICT Enterprise Development and founder of Inyosi Empowerment.
Understanding the digital gender divide
The theme DigitALL innovation is perfectly encapsulated in the title. Innovation without the inclusion of ALL is void of the innovative thinking we need to foster inclusion. But why are women excluded from the technological space?
The digital gender divide mirrors existing gender inequality patterns inherent in our society. Based on the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, women and girls are being systematically excluded from digital spaces.
From as early as the age of 10, girls are socialized to perceive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects as male-dominated and therefore subjects they would not be ‘naturally’ inclined to take or succeed in.
However, the 19.9% of women globally who have not been steered away from the STEM field, are likely to experience discrimination and exclusion in these male-dominated spaces.
Women of colour
Women of colour living in underserviced rural areas are particularly vulnerable to exclusion from digital innovation and technology based on the axes of race, gender, and class. To address this issue, we must focus on transformative technology and digital education.
“Access to the internet is an essential resource for education and for linking individuals with employment opportunities. In fact, educating young women and girls directly correlates with poverty reduction, improved sexual health, and lower child mortality. Helping eliminate these barriers ultimately enriches and empowers women and our economy as a whole”, suggests Jones.
Facilitating Digital Access
Through its funding portfolio for Enterprise Development in ICTs, Inyosi Empowerment has facilitated the introduction of digital access and digital training in rural communities.
Inyosi has also been a long-standing funder for 26 cell phone towers in deep rural South Africa thereby providing vital access to telecommunications. According to their 2022 Impact Report, some of their beneficiaries of funding have trained over 35,000 students, 80% of whom are women.
Addressing the issue of digital exclusion of a large segment of the population will undoubtedly have positive effects on social and economic development and transformation.
Though the task at hand may seem overwhelming there is phenomenal work being done by women like Ndoni Mcunu, founder of the Black Women in Science network, who advocates for the representation of women in STEM fields as well as Dr. Refilwe Mofokeng, a digital education activist, who fights for accessible and affordable digital education for all, especially young girls.
These are just a handful of women, among many others, that are making strides in addressing the digital gender gap in South Africa and promoting inclusive digital innovation.