Gender Digital Divide: A View of the Situation of Women in the Arab World

15 February,2016

With the considerable changes that have happened after the Digital Revolution, it was expected to see more changes when it comes to inequalities and differences. Those changes and their implications have been very obvious in the developed world, but less clear and more limited in other parts of the world, especially in the least technologically developed regions (such as the Middle East and North Africa region).Talking about differences and inequalities, one of the most intriguing problems is the gap created due to the disparities of the use of the Internet between the regions of the world, which we call the Digital Divide.

What is the Digital Divide?

As mentioned above, the results of the “digital revolution” are happening at a huge speed. However fast, it is not immediate and has its own distinctions, like for example the differences that might exist between early adopters and latecomers. A new form of inequality is added to all the existing forms of discrimination: We are mainly talking about an “inequality in the power to communicate and to process information digitally,” also referred to as the Digital Divide.

Curtis Kularski refers to the digital divide as being “composed of a skill gap and a gap of physical access to Information Technology (IT) and the two gaps often contribute to each other in circular causation. Without access to technology, it is difficult to develop technical skill and it is redundant to have access to technology without first having the skill to utilise it.[1]

In a sense, when inequalities and disparities between males and females come to mind, we must think of their serious cost implications, with effects on both human and economic development by creating more poverty, less economic growth with bad governance, and lower level living standards for citizens.It goes without saying that what has long been expected is the fact that the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) will improve human development, whether directly or indirectly, which should lead to a reduction in gender inequality. However, some dark points persist.

Accordingly, the purpose of this study is to focus on the possible relations between gender inequalities and the use of ICTs, first giving some statistics related to the question in the MENA region (and specifically Tunisia) and then analyzing some possible reasons for the digital gender gap.
Gender Digital Divide: A new concept or a result of existing disparities?

To begin with, we must say that digital gender gap is a reflection of the gender inequalities that exist in reality throughout societies and economies. It is widely known that women are exposed to discrimination around the world in fields such as employment, income, health, and education, which partly reflects cultural biases and household decisions about relative reward/return on effort.

Some experts even say that the problems related to Internet access are the product of socioeconomic differences between men and women,[2] while the use gap is the product of both socioeconomic differences and underlying, gender-specific effects.It goes without saying that issues related to the gender digital divide have been very important in terms of discussions in the information society. However, the lack of statistical data on the subject makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to make the case for the inclusion of gender issues in ICT policies, plans, and strategies for policymakers, particularly those in developing countries. This is due to the fact that many governments do not collect ICT statistics consistently and regularly.

Yet, more importantly, we must see why males and females behave differently in relation to the question of ICT use, causing this gap. In simple terms, the issue is related to three major points:
  1. Confidence and computer self-efficacy
  2. Level of “computer anxiety”[3]
  3. Gender preferences on how to use computers and the Internet

According to a small survey conducted online, over 110 Internet users in Tunisia demonstrated that the mentioned three points are the main reason of a gendered digital divide. When asked about their opinions on who is using Internet more, the answers were divided as following:

The statistics of this first figure show that even users in Tunisia tend to think that women are the category that interacts with Internet the least. That also explains the first and second points mentioned above about confidence and anxiety of women related to ICTs. In fact, the same survey revealed that this is due to many reasons such as:

Socio-cultural gender stereotypes, which are very common in societies like ours and which appear at a young age, stating what suits boys and what suits girls, and most societies tend to attribute the use of ICTs to males over females. In many Arab countries, the Internet reproduces and amplifies gender stereotypes that identify women with the private sphere of household chores and men with the public sphere of paid work. According to Helia (2013), “the Arab World is a strictly male-dominated culture, where male supremacy is the norm. In such a patriarchal society, the dominant discourse is based on a power relationship in which women’s interest is subordinate to men.”

Actually, these gender-based stereotypes are very clear in media discourse, as well as computer-based educational material. Analyzing the status of mainstream ICTs from a gender perspective shows the huge differences between men and women in terms of access and use of ICTs.In addition, it is crucial to highlight the fact that the lack of high technological skills is another important aspect of the gender digital divide. In the Arab world/MENA region, women do not acquire the adequate skills to achieve technological fluency. They do not have the qualifications that are required to deal with ICTs, which leads to a higher level of anxiety within the female category of users.
According to the ITU report (2013), the developing world is home to about 826 million female Internet users and 980 million male Internet users. The gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16% fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only 2% fewer women than men in the developed world.[4]

In relation with the trends of online networking, it appears that, in the Arab world, social networks are of a central use (54,552,875 Facebook users in the Arab world). However, only a small portion of this huge number is attributed to female users (about 34%).This is due in large part to the insecurity women feel while being online. As a matter of fact, 55% of the users who took the survey responded negatively to the question: “Do you feel secure while connected to the Internet?” (48.6% are women)

Many of the answers stated that this insecurity of women is related to the risks they are encountering on a daily basis when using the Internet. Harassment, risks of losing personal data, privacy, and confidentiality are only a part of the reasons mentioned.In reference to the last point, “preferences of using ICTs between males and females,” we must highlight that it is related mainly to the following question: For what purposes do men and women use ICTs? And do are they benefitting equally from their ICT usage?

As a matter of fact, women and men use ICTs differently, with gaps increasing each time there are sophisticated uses. People from different genders have different experiences related to ICTs. In some selected Arab countries, consistent gender gaps are observed in the use of e-commerce, as well as the use of smart phones, with consistently higher proportions of men choosing to purchase and use these services than women.[5]
Gender Digital Divide and Policy Development

The problem of the gender digital divide is nowadays one of the biggest challenges that countries and the Information Society have to face. The issue is most seen and known in developing countries, more than the developed world. At this level, it is indeed extremely important to highlight the role of policy in shaping “ICT for development” agendas, since it has the potential to impact most sectors of society. However, governments have always tended to regard ICT policy development as a technical matter and to keep essential social and economic concerns away from it.

ICTs are actually cross-cutting, which means that they do not stand alone, but connect with many other issues such as education, health, governance, inequality, agriculture, finance, science, and many others, all having a direct impact on gender equality issues, and this in particular can affect the policymaking process.

In fact, in most countries and in a particular way in the least developed ones, specific policies (if they do exist) do not systematically take ICTs into account, which enhances the gap based on gender between users. In some recent research, it appeared that only 29% of 119 countries included reference to gender as an issue in their National Broadband Plan (NBP). The Global Initiative on Inclusive Information and Communications Technology (G3ict) reports that just 14% of countries had policies in place for women.[6]

In fact some of the most critical issues related to the gender digital divide and the inclusion of women in the policymaking process are mostly related to the fact that many states do not yet treat affordable access as a basic right for the entire population, which especially affects women.

Furthermore, many developing countries are not yet proactive in implementing broadband development and policies that promote the coordination of efforts among the public sector, businesses, and civil society. Another problem is related to awareness-raising and building information literacy, particularly amongst more excluded members of society. Arab countries in particular give little consideration to the digital gender gap between households with male heads and households with female heads.

Those countries must keep in mind that digital literacy programs targeted to this segment should take into account the particular characteristics of households with female heads and their specific needs, mainly caused by lower income, which affects the purchase of ICT equipment and payment of broadband fees.

In summary, bridging the gender gap is certainly a matter of fairness and opportunity for women. It is true that some may argue that access for women is often correlated with the development of a country, but that causality may in fact be inverted. In fact, research by the World Bank has estimated that a 10% increase in broadband adoption will result in a 1.38% increase in economic growth. This seems obvious, since access to the Internet can enable women to increase their productivity, access new markets, improve their education, find better jobs, and contribute to the innovation economy. In the words of one American government official, “Ensuring equal access to broadband by women is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.[7]

[1] Kularski (C.), Moller (S.): The digital divide as a continuation of traditional systems of inequality. Sociology 2012, 5151, 1–23.
[2] Bimber (2000)
[3] Hilbert (2011)
[4] ITU Report: ICT facts and figure
[5] Arab Advisors report 2013
[6] “Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the Inclusion of Women & Girls in the Information Society,” a Report by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband and Gender.
[7] Ann Mei Chang: Senior Advisor for Women and Technology for the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the United States Department of State

Sarah Attafi Law Research Student.