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Understanding the Global Digital Gender Gap

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, February 28 2013

The worldwide digital gender gap, from the ITU's World in 2013 report.

There are 200 million more men on the Internet than women, according to new figures from the International Telecommunication Union, and the gender gap is even wider in the developing world.

Worldwide Internet usage by men currently stands at 1.5 billion, with women users at 1.3 billion. In developing nations, 16 percent fewer women than men are online, as opposed to 2 percent in the developed world. The figures come from the ITU's World in 2013 report on information technology use, released on day three of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona yesterday.

They show that even as the gap in Internet use is narrowing, women in developing nations face a much steeper climb to equal access.

Some of the factors behind the gender gap can be seen in additional findings in the report. This year's banner statistic is that worldwide mobile phone penetration – the number of active phone numbers as a percentage of the population – has now reached more than 100 percent in four of six global regions. Worldwide mobile subscriptions will soon surpass 7 billion – roughly equaling the number of humans on the planet, though much of this total can be accounted for by users with multiple phones.

Statistics from last year confirm that mobile penetration in the developing world has reached at least 79 percent. Yet mobile use is not a surefire sign of prosperity. Worldwide, more people have access to phones than toilets.

For women in many developing nations, mobile phones – and mobile Internet networks – also may not be as useful or available as they are to men.  Intel’s Women and the Web study on the digital gender gap, which was released in January, pointed out some of the cultural hurdles that may prevent women from getting online.  In the conservative Uttar Pradesh region of India, for instance, “gender norms prohibit women from merely venturing outside.”  While men use mobile to conduct business and communicate openly, women face far more many barriers to connectivity.

As an indicator of IT prosperity – and equality – mobile may soon be ousted in the conventional wisdom. Household Internet penetration, which the ITU says is “often considered the most important measure of Internet access,” will be the important figure for developing nations in the coming years.  The ITU notes that Africa has led the way in this sector, with an annual growth rate of 27 percent sustained over the past four years. 

For women in the developing world with many blocks to IT access, from society and from circumstance, starting in the home could be a step down the right path. 

The figures are based on an annual questionnaire the ITU sends to "official country contacts" like telecommunications regulators, as well from ITU reports and operators.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.