This post was written by Ingrid Brudvig, Gender Policy Manager, Web Foundation.
What’s one of the first steps governments can (and must) take to close the digital gender gap? Hint: It’s not “build an app.” At the Web Foundation we believe the first step to creating a more gender equitable digital world is making sure that ALL information and communication technology (ICT), broadband and digital education policies have bold gender equality targets backed by the strategies, plans and budget necessary to deliver on them.
Internet access has the power to expand social and economic opportunities, civic participation and activism, cultural understanding and the arts. However, men are much more likely to access the internet than women. A global gender gap in internet access reinforces inequalities in society and limits digital opportunity. This ultimately means that any policy or project to get more people online will fail unless it targets the gender gap specifically.
With support from German Development Cooperation, we’re facilitating a series of #eSkills4PolicyMakers workshops throughout 2019 to support government actors in developing gender equality targets and reformulating their policies to ensure equal, affordable and meaningful access to the internet for women and girls.
The first workshop in this series took place in Maputo, Mozambique on April 9-11, 2019. Co-hosted with the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Mozambique, it brought together stakeholders from Ministries of ICT, Education and Women, as well as ICT Regulatory Authorities representing Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, as well as CRASA, Southern Africa’s Communications Regulatory Association.
On this Girls in ICT Day, here are three takeaways from the Maputo #eSkills4PolicyMakers workshop that consider how governments can prioritise gender-responsive policies in the fight for digital equality.
1. “Never assume that technology is gender neutral.” Define the problem and REACT
Many policies to connect the unconnected rest on the assumption that technology is gender neutral. This is a fault in the very first stage of policy making: problem definition. Case in point: blanket initiatives to “connect everyone” with ICT infrastructure often fail to to reach women and, therefore, the digital gender gap persists. A lack of readily available official government data on the ICT gender gap masks the problem of the gender digital divide. In addition, gender advocates are rarely consulted as key stakeholders in ICT policy making spaces. As a result, policies often fail to connect women and the poorest, to overcome disparities in ICT skills and capabilities, or to deliver applications, services and content that are relevant to women’s challenges and needs. Indeed, as one workshop participant highlighted, “Never assume that access means they will come.”
The digital gender divide is a political, economic, social and even “technical” problem with many possible responses that may have different outcomes in diverse communities. To identify and understand the specific problems to be addressed by gender-responsive policy in the digital sector, stakeholders must firstly collect gender & ICT data, consult a diversity of stakeholders and REACT — that is, assess how the problem can be addressed by focusing on: Rights, Education, Access, Content and Targets.
2. Gender-responsive policy is not a zero-sum game
“Some colleagues asked for a report back [on this workshop] to use for Girls in ICT Day. But it is not about that, it’s much more than that…beyond just that one day, it’s a daily thing … to focus on women and girls and their contribution to ICT for development.”
Addressing gender equality in policy is not a patchwork fix or a one-off consideration. It is a continuous exercise to ensure that down the line, no one is left behind. As such, gender-responsive policy making requires continual assessment, as well as monitoring and evaluation on the impact of policy measures on different groups in society.
There is often an assumption that gender-responsive policy making implies de-prioritising other issues (like ICT infrastructure), requires additional budget, or neglects men and boys. These are all FALSE. In fact, gender-responsive policy making is an opportunity to open the ‘rigid’ approaches to policy and to cater to groups left behind by delivering services to the public and reaching the unconnected — which is disproportionately female.
Approaching gender need not be a stand-alone or separate process. Instead, stakeholders should ensure that all analysis conducted for the purposes of developing policies and plans integrate gender considerations, from network deployment analysis to universal access strategies and priorities. Policy options need to be holistic, addressing all aspects of the broader problem, including, among other things, to be gender-responsive.
3. Embracing multi-stakeholderism is key for successful gender-responsive policy
To create successful ICT policies and strategies, stakeholders — including within government — must go beyond ‘department’ and ‘knowledge’ silos and ensure there is multi-stakeholder and public consultation for policy planning and implementation. This means engaging other actors within government, in the private sector (including SMEs), and in civil society (including academia, cooperatives, consumer groups, associations and other citizen networks).
When designing possible policy approaches, factoring in perspectives and concerns from ALL stakeholders who will be impacted by this policy is key to its success. For example, supplying ICT infrastructure or distributing hardware as part of ICT in education strategies must also address teacher training programmes. Supplying connectivity through fibre in rural geographies must also assess if the network reaches women through the areas they live and work. Governments should consider how incentives for private sector actors to deploy connectivity in rural areas may be pegged on connecting more women in order to serve a wider public.
While gender should be integrated from the beginning of policy formulation, it is often considered as an “after-thought” because of limited stakeholder engagement in defining the problem. This can be done by incorporating political, socio-cultural, economic, geographic and other relevant analysis and perspectives from a diverse range of stakeholders. Participants in the workshop reflected on the benefits to be gained in sharing information and open data through online portals for multi-stakeholder collaboration across ICT, education and gender ministries, and with the public.
To bridge the digital gender gap we need policymakers who understand the barriers to access and have the tools to promote more inclusive public policy. Through programs like #eSkills4PolicyMakers, we can share knowledge and skills to help governments create policies that specifically target groups that are too often marginalised in the digital sphere. We look forward to hosting the next eSkills4PolicyMakers workshops in West Africa and Asia later this year.
Want to learn more on gender-responsive policy in the digital sector?
- Rapid progress to close the gender gap is possible if policymakers take immediate action to REACT — that is, to focus on Rights, Education, Access, Content, and Targets.
- Advancing Women’s Rights Online: Gaps and Opportunities in Policy and Research
- Women’s Rights Online: Digital Gender Gap Audit
- REACT with Gender-Responsive ICT Policy: Connecting the Next Billion
- Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide
To receive a weekly news brief on the most important stories in tech, subscribe to The Web This Week.