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Measuring the digital divide: Why we should be using a women-centered analysis

Web Foundation · May 22, 2018

The problem

Internet access has the power to drive business development and economic growth, expand social opportunities, civic participation and activism, music and the arts. However, the fact that the benefits of access accrue primarily to the half of the world online today means that access to technology can also reinforce inequalities in society. Men are much more likely to access the internet than women, leading to a global digital gender gap in access. This ultimately means that any policy or project to get more people online will fail unless it targets this gap. While we may think of this as a task for policy-makers and government, it should also concern companies that want to reach new consumers, and civil society organisations that want to make sure everyone can use the internet to participate in civic and political life.

Measuring the gap

To ensure that everyone has access to the internet, we need to know the extent of the digital gender gap in a given country. So how do we measure that? We start with data on how many men and women use the internet. Unfortunately, this data is only available in some countries — the ITU provides data on internet use for about 47% of all countries, defining an internet user as someone who used the internet by any device and location in the last 3 months. (Of note is that this approach takes a binary view of gender (i.e., male and female) and therefore overlooks other gender identities.)

Where the data on men’s and women’s internet access does exist, there are different options available to calculate the gap — and not all organisations use the same one. This lack of a standard of measurement means that different organisations put forward different estimates that are all too often are used interchangeably by policymakers and others.

One approach to calculate the gender digital divide — used by the ITU and the GSMA — is to define the gap as the difference in the internet penetration rate between men and women, as a proportion of the internet penetration rate for men:

% of men using the internet – % of women using the internet / % of men using the internet

Another approach — one that we use at the Web Foundation and has also been used by the Economist Intelligence Unit — is to calculate the gap as the difference between the internet penetration rate between men and women, but as a proportion of internet penetration rate for women:  

% of women using the internet – % of men using the internet / % of women using the internet

Which approach is more appropriate?

Both of these approaches offer greater insight into the gender digital divide than simply looking at the difference between the proportion of men and women using the internet, since they help us to see the true scale of the divide (by relating the difference between men’s and women’s use to the proportion of those already online).  

The question then becomes: Which group should we use as the reference point? The ITU and GSMA use the percentage of men online as the reference, while the Web Foundation uses the percentage of women online as the reference. A third approach could be to use the percentage of everyone (men and women) online as the reference point. However, when our intention is to focus on the disparity and disadvantages faced by women, we believe it is best to ground our analysis from their perspective. Using a women-centered perspective we can more accurately understand how many more women need to come online in order to reach gender parity.  

Using this women-centered approach on a global level — where nearly 51% of men and 45% of women are online — we see that the gender digital divide is actually 13.4% (compared with the 11.6% figure calculated by the ITU). The lower the percentage of women online, the larger the digital gender gap will be, when we use women as the reference point (i.e., the Web Foundation approach). Understanding the divide in terms of the percentage of women who are online helps to frame the challenge in a way that can lead to more realistic and ambitious policy targets, helping us to close the gender digital divide and ultimately, the global digital divide. Relying on internet use among men as the measuring stick for women’s internet use only serves to maintain the faulty notion that how we measure women’s performance is dependent on men.

Implications for policy

These approaches have implications where the digital gender gap is used to define policy goals. For example, it’s important that any policy to address the gap has targets. If a country were to say that within 5 years its digital gender gap should be less than 10%, then we need to be clear on how that gap is calculated. We have shown how to calculate the gap using two different approaches, as well as the underlying meanings of both. Using the Web Foundation approach means that policymakers will have a more ambitious but impactful target of improving access and use for all. We hope that this brief outline will help others better understand what is meant by the digital gender gap, and reflect on the ways in which data are calculated and presented (and why some formulas are used instead of others). In fact, going forward the Web Foundation will now report the digital gender gap (where data is available) at the global and country levels in terms of the percentage of women online.


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