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Women, the web and the future of work

Web Foundation · March 22, 2017

This post, written by our Digital Equality Advocacy Manager Nanjira Sambuli, originally appeared on the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) website prior to the inaugural Digital Development Summit 2017


As technology advances, conversations around the opportunities and risks posed by automation and digitisation on the future of work have inevitably increased. It is important to consider the differing impacts the digitisation of work will have in developed countries versus in developing countries – as a previous blog post in this series explored – but it is equally as critical to consider the implications on women. Men and women will be impacted by this future in different ways – both positively and negatively – and we must ensure that as discussions around the future of work take shape, they adopt a gendered lens from the get-go.

At the Web Foundation, we set up the Women’s Rights Online (WRO) initiative to ensure that the growing digital gender divide is not overlooked in ICT policy discourses. This divide in internet access is real and significant – a WRO 2015 study found that women in poor, urban communities are 50 per cent less likely to be online than men, and this gender digital divide looks to be getting worse with time. What is more, the effects are extending beyond access, impacting how women use and appropriate digital technologies – our same 2015 research study found that 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. Controlling for the effects of age, education, employment status and income, women are 25 per cent less likely to use the internet for job-seeking than men.

The implications of this gender digital divide on the future of work and global development are significant, and the underlying causes numerous – ranging across the political, economic, social, and technological spectrum. Here are three socio-economic ‘analog’ factors (i.e., factors that preceded the advent of information and communication technologies) that are contributing to this yawning divide on technology access and use by women, particularly in developing nations:

1. Patriarchal norms and attitudes

Our 2015 Women’s Rights Online study found online harassment and patriarchal norms and attitudes towards the internet to be a significant constraint to how women access and use the web. Patriarchal attitudes are spilling over into the digital realm, presenting a socio-cultural challenge that is just as important to consider as the technological changes we are witnessing.

Beliefs such as ‘men have priority over women when it comes to accessing the internet’, ‘men have the responsibility to restrict what women access on the internet’, ‘women should be restricted from using the internet in public spaces on their own’ were articulated by three in every ten men interviewed, and interestingly, two in every ten women. Such gendered norms are the root of gender discrimination in overt, direct ways, as well as in covert and indirect ways. They also are difficult to measure – and even harder to quantify – which could lead to their being overlooked in policy discussions about our digital futures.

Across the globe, strong legal protections of rights online, especially for women, are lacking (for example, The 2014 Web Index noted that 74 per cent of countries are not doing enough to stop online violence against women). This, coupled with online harassment and abuse – often under-reported and emboldened by adverse gendered norms – creates a hostile online environment for women. Women looking to use the internet to seek job opportunities or to showcase their work risk online harassment or abuse in doing so. Given this reality and a lack of recourse mechanisms, it is quite likely that women will be left behind in a digital-driven world of work.

As we noted in the Women’s Rights Online report, ‘patriarchy as a form of social control may have debilitating effects at the micro-level (e.g. within the household) by placing women second in line to benefit from technology, if given the chance at all.’ This will be an important hypothesis to explore through further research into technology access and use.

2. Education

Education is one of the primary determinants of internet use. ‘Not knowing how’ to use the internet was the barrier most widely cited by poor, urban women who do not use the internet. Controlling for income, women who have some secondary education or have completed secondary school are six times more likely to be online than women with primary school education or less; furthermore, the digital gender gap decreases when higher levels of education are attained. Age also matters; younger men and women are more likely to be online than older age groups. However, while the digital gender gap may be smaller among youth, it is still sizeable.

The majority of countries surveyed for our research do not provide internet access in schools, teacher training in ICTs, or community digital literacy training, nor do they collect data to monitor progress in these areas. In order to give women increased opportunity to take advantage of online opportunities, it is critical for primary and secondary schools to incorporate digital skills training into their curricula, and for women to have equal access to tertiary education opportunities to unlock digital opportunities for all. These will serve as crucial nodes for imparting and honing the skills needed to compete in an ICT-driven world of work.

3. Income inequality

The digital divide that exists today is a poverty and gender divide. It is estimated that one in ten people live in extreme poverty (under $1.90 a day), and half of the extreme poor live in sub-Saharan Africa. Women are more vulnerable to extreme poverty as they face greater burden on unpaid work, have fewer assets and productive resources as men, and for the most part, must overcome the obstacles posed by the patriarchal norms and attitudes discussed above. The costs of connecting to the internet around the world remain high and it is no surprise then that the poorer people are, the less likely they are to use the internet.

We found the gender gap in connectivity is smallest among the poorest, and highest at middle income levels; this, because for the very poor – men and women alike – internet access is simply too expensive. However, at every income level men are still more likely than women to be online. The countries with the highest internet costs (as a proportion of average per capita income) have the lowest numbers of women online and the largest gender gaps in internet use.

Way forward

As noted by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, gender equality and female empowerment through ICTs, as proposed in Sustainable Development Goal 5b, will not become a reality until ICTs become more affordable and readily accessible to women. Years of ICT policy research have shown that a ‘gender blind’ approach simply does not work. This is why we must proceed with a gender-responsive approach to policies that will impact how women benefit from a future where technology access is a key determinant of work and livelihoods.

It will take the formulation and adoption of smart policies to close the gender digital divide and achieve universal, equal and meaningful access for all. At current rates, the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s research warns us that we may miss the lofty sustainable development goal to achieve universal, affordable access by 2020 by over 20 years.

Based on our household survey findings and the digital gender gap audits produced subsequently, we believe that through policy reform, we can reverse this worrying trend. More specifically, we propose five shared priority action areas as a starting point for broad regional and global consultation, in order to agree on an international action agenda.

To remember these five action areas, remember that we must REACT – that is, focus on strengthening rights online and offline, invest in digital skills and data literacy education, strive to ensure that all citizens have affordable and meaningful access to the internet, stimulate supply (and creation) of relevant content and services for women online, and that governments must adopt and integrate concrete gender equity targets into national ICT policies, and must ensure these policies are backed by adequate budget allocations. Only through these steps can we ensure that women enter the future of work on an equal footing to men, and reap the benefits of an open web.


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