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Rise of the next digital divide: Women and the web

Experts believe 600 million new female internet users can be added within the next 3 years.

A first-of-its-kind report gathered data from thousands of women in developing countries to shed light on the lack of women on the web. On average, 25 percent fewer women than men are online today; yet, if action is taken now, 600 million women could have access to the internet in the next three years.

Women and the Web: Bridging the internet gap and creating new global opportunities in low and middle-income countries,” commissioned by Intel Corp. in consultation with the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s issues, UN Women, and World Pulse, aims to answer questions such as “What is the size of the internet gender gap?” and “What prevents women from accessing the internet?”

“200 million fewer women than men are online today,” said Shelly Esque, president of Intel Foundation and vice president of corporate affairs for Intel. “In many regions, the internet gender gap reflects and amplifies existing inequalities between the sexes.”

According to Michelle Bachelet, undersecretary general and executive director for UN Women, internet access enhances women’s economic empowerment, political participation, and social inclusion through initiatives that support increased productivity and income generation, mobilization, and accountability, as well as improved livelihoods and expansion of services.

(Next page: What the report recommends)

Without intervention, explained Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues for the U.S. Department of State, “women’s lack of access is giving rise to a second digital divide.”

Detailed information about the survey’s findings and the authors’ recommendations can be found in the full report here.

The facts

Based on interviews and surveys of 2,200 women and girls living in the urban and near-urban areas of four focus countries (Egypt, India, Mexico, and Uganda), the gender gap—which today prevents 200 million women from participating online—is projected to perpetuate.

Without any concerted action, 450 million new female internet users are projected to come online in the next three years, simply as a result of “organic growth in internet penetration,” says the report.

Yet, more than 40 experts in the fields of gender, the internet, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) believe that progress can be accelerated to add 600 million new female internet users within three years, rather than 450 million, which would double the number of women and girls online.

Such an expansion, says the report, would:

  • Expand opportunities—180 million would improve their ability to generate income, nearly 500 million would improve their education, and more than 500 million would feel they had greater freedom as a result of being online.
  • Open up a market opportunity of $50 to $70 billion in new sales of platforms and data plans.
  • Contribute an estimated $13 to $18 billion to annual Gross Domestic Product across 144 developing countries.
  • Reach beyond these women to also expand opportunities for their families, potentially impacting three billion people worldwide.

Other interesting findings include: one in five women in India and Egypt believe the internet is not “appropriate” for them and their families might disapprove; affordability of access remains a challenge for all, but particularly for women; illiteracy also poses a greater problem to online access for women than for men; women lack awareness of the internet’s potential benefits outside of social networks; and almost 40 percent of women who don’t use the internet cite lack of comfort with technology.


The report’s recommendations are based on existing actions that work well and could be scaled and replicated, proposals of experts in gender and ICT, and on the suggestions of women and girls who participated in the survey.

The recommendations cover a range of interventions from skills and leadership training to social empowerment, to research and data gathering.

For example, stakeholders in the industry should expand access to affordable platforms through innovative low-cost designs, as well as expand options for free content access.

Stakeholders in the development community should support the establishment and growth of internet organizations that prioritize gender-focused initiatives. Examples include WOUGNET (The Women Of Uganda Network) at the country level, ArabDev at the regional level, and APC (the Association for Progressive Communication) at the global level.

Policy makers should develop comprehensive national plans for increasing broadband penetration that address gender-specific barriers, and they should address market constraints that impact affordability of internet platforms, such as ensuring healthy competition, while also supporting women directly through programs such as targeted subsidies.

According to the report, all stakeholders should collaborate to address factors hindering access for individual women and girls, as well as address factors affecting the internet ecosystem.

“As the world advances, our approach to combating poverty, discrimination, and development must evolve with it,” said Verveer. “We have repeatedly seen that investing in women’s progress is the most direct and effective way to invest in progress economically and socially around the world. My hope is that this report will catalyze action to close the internet gender gap.”

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