More than two-thirds of the world’s population will be using smartphones by 2020, but how smart are they for women? Information and communication technology is transforming our lives, but is it transforming gender inequalities for the better around the world? Amy O’Donnell and Jemma Stringer unpick the digital revolution’s role in transforming gender inequalities.

Women are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men and, in Africa, women are 50% less likely to use the Internet than men. We often hear of the barriers to women’s access to and use of technology such as cost, literacy and security. These practical barriers are relatively well documented and, quite rightly, form the starting point of addressing gender inequality through development and humanitarian work that uses ICTs.

For women, having a phone in their pocket or a social media account is likely to only be one step in accessing the timely, appropriate and relevant information that can support them to change their lives for the better. For Oxfam and our partners, sustainable access to technology is important, but beyond that, the ability, confidence and inclination to use that technology is crucial to ensuring women aren’t left behind in the technological revolution. As the shifting digital landscape continues to change the way people communicate or access information, and the use of information communications technology (ICT) becomes more common in our programmes, the gendered nature of ICT use needs to be addressed to avoid the significant risk of leaving women out.

From practical barriers to practical needs

The next step for initiatives wanting to explicitly address gender inequality is often to use ICTs to address women’s practical needs. That is to say, those immediate needs identified by women in a given context that relate to the inadequacies in living conditions that they face on a daily basis. This manifests into the use of ICTs to support women to access specific services and information, such as text messages with health information or services and radio broadcasts in emergency response, for example.

Whilst this is a reasonable and important place to start, it is often where the story ends for achieving gender justice through ICT use in humanitarian and development work. The problem with this focus is that it doesn’t this actually tackle the bigger picture – which we think is a missed opportunity of the potential of ICTs to transform the structures, norms and beliefs that maintain gender inequality in the first place.

From practical needs to strategic transformation

Research has shown that even when women are online, they are 30-50% less likely than men to use the Internet to increase their income or participate in public life. We must ask ourselves: why are women hindered when it comes to harnessing the full benefits of technology? A good starting point is to recognise that the ICTs do not provide a neutral space, but rather reflect the inequalities that pervade in society. As such, ICTs are fundamentally gendered, both in the way technology is designed and the way they are used to generate and present content or create space for dialogue.

In a world where men create the majority of technology and are consumers of the majority of content, women are at a disadvantage. Online spaces can also replicate the kind of discrimination that exists in ‘real life’, whilst also having the potential to heighten discrimination as the relative anonymity of online spaces can allow abuse to happen with impunity. As a result, not only are many technology-enabled spaces designed without women’s input, the resulting spaces can be unwelcoming, intimidating and sometimes dangerous for women.

So, it is in this context that initiatives attempt to use ICTs to address women’s immediate practical needs. But, as we can see, meeting practical needs by ‘working round’ the problem of gender inequality is not enough. Ultimately, what we need is to address the root of the problem. In this case that means strategically and actively addressing the issues that underpin women’s unequal access to and marginalisation from ICTs in the first place, and that is an altogether trickier matter: because we’ve got to address gender inequality in ‘real life’ in order for things to change online.

The exciting news is that we’re starting to see how ICT itself can actually play an important part in that process: creating the more transformational and strategic changes needed to achieve gender equality. Projects like Oxfam India’s Close the Gap campaign, which used ICTs to challenge gender injustice through supporting people to speak out about gender inequalities that affected them, and the Everyday Sexism Project which invites anyone who has experienced sexism to post on Twitter, show us that there is huge potential for the use of ICT to go beyond the practical to the transformational. We need to go a giant step further than using ICT to meet women’s practical needs, and begin using it to directly and explicitly address the root causes of gender inequality. As ICTs support and facilitate the transformation of the structures, behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate the unequal status and opportunities of women around the world, in turn ICTs will come to reflect a more equal society.

We’re supporting Girls in ICT Day, 28 April 2016 by joint hosting a Twitter debate with the ITU on April 27 at 14:00 GMT. Find out more here.

Photo credit: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam

Jemma Stringer
Jemma StringerGender Justice Officer
Amy O'Donnell
Amy O'DonnellICT in Programme Lead

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