In early 2016 I visited a tech hub in Freetown, Sierra Leone that had been established by a young innovator who was passionate about advancing technology in his home country. The Sensi Tech Hub was a center of digital learning and entrepreneurship in a city that was still overcoming the devastating effects of Ebola. What stood out to me was a computer class in session as part of the hub’s Women in Tech initiative that provided basic computer skills to local women to increase their employability. These classes had become so popular that Sensi eventually offered separate morning and evening sessions to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate. The Women in Tech initiative is focused on educating young women in computer-based technologies to increase their employability, and creating a community of support and advocacy.
For me, this experience was enlightening because it reinforced the connection between computer education and employment for women in developing countries. Researchers Amy Antonio and David Tuffley in their report, The Gender Digital Divide in Developing Countries, noted that 40 percent of women surveyed indicated they were unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology – a barrier that prohibited them from developing their computer and digital literacy skills. Technology and the internet can be a powerful economic and social tool for women. Greater access can increase women’s employment and educational opportunities, connect them to financial and health services, expose them to new information and enable them to become knowledge and information creators.
While the benefits are known, challenges exist to closer the digital gender gap. The United Nations’ World’s Women 2010 report showed that in half of the 55 countries they surveyed, less than 50 percent of women had access to the internet. In the lowest internet-penetration countries, that number dropped to less than 25 percent. In updated statistics from the ITU, the gender gap in global internet access has grown from 11 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2016 – despite an increase in practical initiatives to address this gap over the past three years. In Least Developed Countries (LDCs), that gap grows to 31 percent.
These figures are not insignificant; they are representative of a serious threat that exists for women around the world – that they will be left behind in the digital revolution, growing ever farther from the goal of equality. But these statistics also represent an opportunity.
Grassroots movements, like Sensi, are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to educating girls and young women. More examples include Jjiguene Tech Hub Senegal, a women-in-tech network promoting training programs and opportunities in ICT that are available to members, and AkiraChix in Nairobi, a tech hub founded by four women that offers a training program targeting young women from poor economic and social backgrounds. They offer certification courses in graphic design, web design, mobile application development, and hardware product design as well as ad hoc courses in ICT fields such as 3D modeling. These are just a few examples of the growing momentum the world over around digital literacy and ICT skills for women.
Today, DIAL celebrates International Girls in ICT Day – an initiative begun by ITU in 2012 to stimulate a global environment that empowers and encourages girls and young women to pursue careers in ICT. According to ITU, there currently exists an estimated shortfall of two million skilled ICT workers around the world, reflective of the significant gender divide in the sector (both in developed and developing countries). International Girls in ICT Day introduces young women to ICT careers and opportunities that are readily available to them, with the aim of educating girls, meeting the worker shortfall and closing the digital gender divide at the same time.
Around the world, ITU member organizations will hold events celebrating and engaging young women. Events have included hands-on workshops, job-shadowing, competitions, ICT career fairs and meet-and-greets with female practitioners. To date, over 240,000 girls have been reached through International Girls in ICT Day events.
If you would like to join an event today, an interactive map of events is available here. If you’re interested in hosting an event in 2018, more information on how to do so can be found here. Follow along or share your International Girls in ICT Day event using #girlsinict on all social media platforms.
Closing the digital gender gap will not be easy; it will involve addressing important barriers to access and education, and will likely require addressing cultural norms. But it isn’t impossible – and as long as there exists computer classes for women, and ICT Days for girls, then the divide will be closed.
This is the first post in a series on Overcoming the Digital Gender Divide. Check back for more on the role of women in ICT in the coming weeks.
Allana Nelson joined DIAL in March 2017 as the Program Manager for the Principles for Digital Development on the Insights and Impact team. In this position, she is responsible for promotion, education, and advocacy of the Principles. Prior to joining DIAL, Allana worked at USAID on technology-based solutions to the Ebola response and recovery efforts in West Africa.