The Digital Gender Gap is Getting Wider – Here Are the People Trying to Bridge it

By 2018, there'll be 350 million fewer women online than men. That needs to change.

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Jul 28 2015, 10:59am

The Afghan Institute of Learning, teaching girls literacy skills with mobile phones (Photo via Global Fund for Women)

As a young girl I was fascinated by the toolbox my dad kept in the cupboard under the stairs. I can still picture the forbidden latch and the words of my grandfather as I peered in for a closer look. 'Don't touch'. These were men's tools.

Twenty-two years later, and a recent essay written by Musimbi Kanyoro, the CEO of the Global Fund for Women (GFfW), has me thinking about that toolbox again. On reading the title, 'Technology is a Women's Human Rights Issue', I heard my grandfather's words and then my own: how much technological progress have women made in 2015? For many young girls in India, for example, the computer in the home and the mobile phone lying idly on the kitchen table aren't for her. Like the DIY kit that intrigued my 10-year-old self, those are men's tools too.

After the Arab Spring in 2010 the United Nations declared internet access a basic human right. Yet in 2013, only 40 percent of the world's population had access and, more shockingly, an estimated 200 million fewer women than men were logging on in 2014, with 21 percent less women likely to own a mobile phone. As Kanyoro explains in her essay, that number is set to rise to a staggering 350 million women within three years if we do nothing about it.

But tackling the ever-widening digital gender gap is by no means a small task. The media is saturated with headlines over online harassment and Internet trolls, while a recent Guardian news story revealed that the percentage of women working in digital jobs in the UK has fallen from 33 percent in 2002 to 27 percent today. This month Twitter apologised for holding a staff 'frat house' party while midway through a gender-discrimination lawsuit.

There aren't any easy, quick-fix answers as to why our shared digital space is unequally accessed and often such an inhospitable place for women. It's a multi-faceted problem that so many of us – including governments, communities and multinational technology companies – have been complicit in for so long.

As the Global Fund for Women (a grant-maker and global advocate for women's human rights) points out, women face two main problems within the tech world: getting inside in the first place, and influencing it once we're in there. Alongside digital storytelling platform IGNITE and the Technology Fund, the GFfW is trying to push for change from the grassroots up as part of a larger technology initiative.

"The ability to access technology is absolutely critical, but equally is the ability for women to control technology and to shape it," GFfF's Catherine King explains.

"In our world, technology is such an essential part of everything we do – accessing health services, education, employment. Navigating the world digitally is absolutely critical to being fully engaged in society and women and girls are missing, are underrepresented or are dropping out."

When you live in a digital age without the necessary tools or knowledge to help you survive, it's inevitable that education suffers, and so does any semblance of career progression – or, quite possibly, any career at all. With fewer women likely to get educated in STEM or ICT careers, King points out "they're less likely to become the leaders of companies, which means they're less likely to be the ones who are at the forefront of creating and inventing technology."

"We found that it was overwhelmingly white men that were being commemorated," Edell says. To paraphrase their findings, women only made up 17 percent of the Google Doodles honouring notable people from 2010 to 2013 and out of the 26 percent commemorating people of colour, only 18 percent were women.

The same day their report was published on The Wall Street Journal's homepage, Dana got a call from Google. One "brilliant phone conversation" led to both parties strategising and soon they "came up with the idea of digital monuments" to "map the spaces where women have done incredible things in art, science technology, politics and history," as Edell puts it.

Was Google's gender fail a surprise to them? Dana speaks about an "unconscious bias" that has arguably permeated so many other major tech companies up until now. "It's not this intentional, malicious 'let's keep people out of the tech industry' but it's an un-acknowledgement of the severity of the crisis," Dana says. "Obviously they can't just fire all the white men tomorrow. It's going to take time to see the change happen."

Dana's latterly point might be tongue-in-cheek, but it still cuts to the bone. Workforce diversity data published by Google itself in January this year makes for an infuriating read. Overall, women make up only 30 percent of Google's workforce (out of that percentage only two percent were black and three percent hispanic) and the tech department figures are even more telling, with women occupying just 18 percent of roles. Google's gender issues aren't just theirs alone. A quick search of any of the major players, including Yahoo and Facebook, reveals similar problems when it comes to diversity in the workplace. Like Google, all are transparent in their struggle, and collective in their realisation that something needs to be done, fast.

Each company is addressing their diversity issues by implementing programmes and strategies but, as Dana at SPARK points out, it's going to take time, and progress is frustratingly slow.

"How can you share the sum of all human knowledge when 50 percent of humanity isn't contributing to it?" Siko Bouterse, director of Community Resources at the Wikimedia Foundation asks me from her office in San Francisco. We're discussing Wikipedia's gender disparity and, in particular, a recent statistic that estimates less than 20 percent of Wikipedia editors are female.

The Blue Veins group in Pakistan use web-based mapping to document cases of sexual harassment (Picture via Global Fund for Women)

"The barriers for women's participation in India are not the same as in the US or the UK. It makes the problem [of gender inequality] not so easy to solve," Siko admits.

That said, the Wikimedia Foundation is actively doing something to try and solve it. If there's one collective barrier women face, it's time. "We know there is inequality in leisure time and in most places men will have more leisure time than women do," Siko explains.

With "international edit-a-thons" – meet-ups held virtually and physically in universities and libraries where people collectively contribute to the encyclopaedia – where specific time slots are set aside the productivity is staggering. Siko takes me through just a few of their achievements including: "Knowledge production" for women in science ("which historically has been pretty unimpressive in printed encyclopaedias") where workshop teams inserted biographies into Wikipedia, and Art+Feminism which saw 15000 volunteers at New York's MOMA participate in more than 75 satellite locations to create 400 new Wikipedia articles.

As Siko concludes, fighting gender disparity "requires persistence and it requires the ability to sometimes engage in conflict." "Persistence" is a word that resonates. The will to change has been missing in the past – much like women online. Now it's finally here, "it's becoming much more of a shared call to action," says Siko.

Encouraging? Yes. But with so much ground for women to recover and occupy, let's not get out the party poppers just yet. Despite recent efforts, the statistics still aren't adding up and, yet again, young girls and women are paying the price. The next time you log in to Facebook or text a friend, picture a young girl in Nigeria stuck at home sewing whilst her brother visits a computer workshop. Or a pregnant woman in East Timor whose pre-natal health depends on SMS texts sent to a trained midwife – skilled care that, due to geographical barriers, is too often inaccessible, putting both mother and baby at risk. This is 2015. We shouldn't be living in a world where young girls are growing up thinking that a toolbox, a laptop or an iPhone aren't for them. Where women aren't getting the medical help they need and the education they are entitled to. A world where so many women are missing.

@Madame_George

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