Gender, Development, and the 'Digital Divide'

Commonly-cited drivers of the gender divide include women's exclusion from tech education and design, financial and institutional constraints, logistical and technical barriers, and socio-cultural biases.
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By Katherine Tan

Innovations in mobile and digital technologies have transformed the international development landscape, opening avenues to reach under-served populations in ways that few imagined just years ago. Digital technology can be a powerful tool to empower disadvantaged groups and improve socioeconomic and health outcomes for women, men, and children in developing countries.

At the same time, rapid technological advances present pitfalls as well as opportunities to address gender disparities in the face of structural and societal constraints. Barriers to technology adoption disproportionately impact women, reflecting broader socio-economic and cultural disparities that technology alone cannot resolve. Development practitioners must take these barriers into account and involve women from the outset of program design as stakeholders, co-creators, and beneficiaries of technology-based interventions. Failing to do so risks further compounding the disparities that many women already face.

Innovative digital services can empower women with new tools to improve their lives. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action's mobile health messaging, which provides critical healthcare information to pregnant women and new mothers. The Grameen Bank's Village Phones program enables rural women in Bangladesh to start their own mobile phone booth businesses. Still, digitally-enabled programs targeting women face the very barriers that contribute to gender inequality in the first place, such as lower education rates among poor women and inability to afford digital access.

Development practitioners agree that there is a gender-based "digital divide" in rates of technology access and adoption in developing countries. Although gender disaggregated statistics on technology use in developing countries aren't officially collected, one of the few studies to explore this topic estimated that women comprise just 25 percent of Internet users in Africa, 22 percent in Asia, 38 percent in Latin America, and 6 percent in the Middle East.

Commonly cited drivers of the gender divide include women's exclusion from tech education and design, financial and institutional constraints, logistical and technical barriers, and socio-cultural biases. While some argue that women may be more "technophobic" than men, a study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations found that, after controlling for socioeconomic factors like employment, education, and income, women are actually more active digital users than men.

The case of LifeSpring, a maternal hospital in Hyderabad, India, explored mobile technology's ability to support maternal health outreach efforts. It illustrates how even well-meaning development organizations can let gender-based assumptions prevent women's full inclusion in technology interventions.

LifeSpring employs female outreach workers who visit low-income neighborhoods to interact with clients and report back to hospital nurses on patient status. While the outreach workers themselves saw value in using mobile devices to collect patient information digitally, the hospital was skeptical about its employees' ability to use a text message-based data platform, describing them as "low literacy." In fact, the situation was more nuanced. Researchers found that while most of the outreach workers did not use text messaging, they did own mobile phones and could read and write in English. The researchers also found that when given a prototype mobile data-collection application with user-friendly visual prompts, workers quickly learned to navigate the application to enter basic patient information. Researchers were also able to identify "early adopters" among the outreach workers, who could help train other workers and provide feedback on the application design.

The LifeSpring experience offers several insights. First, the user-friendly mobile data application illustrates how appropriately designed digital innovations can empower women to play a critical role in development solutions. Secondly and more strikingly, the example reinforces how subtle biases can lead even the best organizations to make assumptions about women's capacity to engage with technology, categorizing certain women as passive recipients of services rather than active stakeholders, designers, and implementers. Finally, the case offers a potential path forward, demonstrating that with the appropriate tools and training, women can serve as powerful partners and advocates for digitally-enabled development solutions.

Digital technologies can only enable us to address entrenched gender inequalities through development if we take a three-dimensional view of women's capabilities and needs, engaging them along the full spectrum of designing and implementing development solutions. Digital technologies applied to development, like any other tools, are only as effective as the programs they enable and people they empower. Deployed responsibly, with attention to our own biases and context-specific obstacles to women's technology use, digital technology can arm women with tools they can use to lift themselves out of poverty and away from the margins of community life. Deployed the wrong way, technology will, at best, perpetuate existing gender-based "digital divides" or, at worst, further exclude women from the fruits of development.

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