Great divide: How digital gender gap is widening inequalities

Digital technology.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Digital technology has been touted as the basis for future jobs, a big driver  of the economy; having fewer women in this space means locking a huge chunk of the population out of future jobs.
  • A 2021 study, titled Kenya’s Digital Economy: A People’s Perspective, found that only 35 per cent of women use advanced digital services compared to 54 per cent of men.

Kenya is feted as a success story in Africa on matters of digital technology.

The country has made huge strides in digital transformation, emerging as the regional ICT hub for East Africa. It currently leads in broadband connectivity, general ICT infrastructure, value-added services, mobile money, mobile banking and FinTech services.

Despite being a leader, however, Kenya’s digital revolution continues to exclude women, resulting in a huge digital gender gap.

A 2021 study, titled Kenya’s Digital Economy: A People’s Perspective, found that only 35 per cent of women use advanced digital services compared to 54 per cent of men.

It attributed the huge gap to discrimination, harmful social norms, education divide, geography and lack of motivation.

Two years earlier, the 2019 Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) Mobile Gender Gap Report indicated that women in Kenya were 39 per cent less likely than men to have access to mobile internet and 23 per cent less likely to own a smartphone.

Dr Anthony Luvanda, a senior lecturer at the Information Technology department at the Defence Forces Technical College at the National Defence University-Kenya, notes that insufficient infrastructure, inadequate  ICT personnel, poor advocacy of digital technology careers, gendered social norms and lack of women role models in digital technology are among contributors to this state of affairs.
Dr Luvanda tells nation.Africa that these factors have led to persistent inequality.

“We need to embrace a better approach to mitigating the cumulative disadvantages that lead to women’s exclusion from the digital space. Digital technology is an enabler and driver of both innovation and entrepreneurship and by not having enough women in this space, we are simply locking them out of these two important components,” he says.

Last year, he conducted research in the gender divide in digital technology courses and careers in Kenya. The findings were shocking.
“No girl in primary school could name a single technology career,” says Dr Luvanda.

He explains that the low rate of women undertaking and advancing in digital-related studies has culminated in the under-representation of women in ICT. The don notes the need to build girls’ interest in ICT during their early years, increase advocacy and enhance vocational counselling for girls.

Currently, Dr Luvanda, a co-founder of Magharibi Hub, is working with Brookings and the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a community digital venture in his village; it will mainly serve girls and young women.

UN Women says 3.7 billion people globally have no access to the Internet, with half of them being women.

The UN agency says having more women connected to the Internet gives them a chance to earn additional income, increase employment opportunities and access knowledge and general information, consequent to their empowerment.

Holding back girls and women in this space affects every aspect of their lives, including their ability to speak out and campaign against issues that affect them.

Dorcas Owino, the founder of Lake Hub, a technology and social innovation hub based in Kisumu, observes the digital gender gap in Kenya needs urgent attention. She notes that despite significant progress in recent years, women still lag behind in access to and adoption of digital technology.

She concurs with Dr Luvanda on the factors enhancing the digital gender gap.

“Bridging the digital gender gap is essential for promoting gender equality and women's empowerment. It is also critical for achieving the country's development goals, including poverty reduction, economic growth, and improved healthcare and education outcomes,” Ms Owino tells Nation.Africa.

Responsive programmes

The IT specialist is now rooting for the establishment of programmes that target women and girls, including those that improve access to digital technology, provide targeted digital literacy programmes, address cultural and social norms, and create gender-responsive policies.

She adds that massive investments in digital infrastructure, education and training and policy interventions are also needed.

At Lakehub, Ms Owino reveals that they have launched programmes aimed at bridging the digital gender gap, key among them FemiDev, a comprehensive six-month training programme that provides women with skills and knowledge to start a career in technology.

“Lakehub has also organised hackathons and coding boot camps for women, as well as networking events that provide women with opportunities to connect with industry professionals and peers. We also partner with other organisations to provide mentorship opportunities for women in tech.”

The 2019 Kenya Housing and Population Census showed a near parity in ownership of mobile phones and use of the Internet, the digital technologies that are key to women empowerment.

On Internet use, men are 5,408,981, equal to 25.1 per cent, while women are 4,460,639, representing a 20.1 per cent stake—a five point difference.

The study titled Kenya’s Digital Economy: A People’s Perspective shows 50 per cent of women use mobile internet in Kenya as compared to 71 per cent of men.

It adds that women, regardless of the depth of digital usage whether super users, basic or non-users, typically face stiffer challenges in using digital services largely because of acute difficulties with gaining access to the Internet or affording digital services.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), about 90 per cent of jobs worldwide have a digital aspect, hence the need to involve women fully in the digital space.

Data from ITU shows that in 2022, 62 per cent of men were using the Internet, compared to 57 per cent of women. However, this divide is more glaring in the least developed countries (LDCs), many of which are in Africa, where only 19 per cent of women used the Internet in 2020, compared to 86 per cent in the developed world.

ITU notes that digital technology has been touted as the basis for jobs of the future, which will be a big part of drivers of the economy. Having fewer women in this space, therefore, means locking a huge chunk of the population out of future jobs.

The Kenyan government has in the last one decade implemented programmes aimed at increasing digital technology access. In 2016, it launched the Digital Literacy Programme, an initiative dedicated to providing digital devices to primary schoolchildren and training educators in digital learning content.

Last year, the state launched a 10-year digital master plan that will map out a digital course for the country towards growth and innovation. It focuses on the development of ICT skills and leads investment projects in ICT for local and external investors.

Ann Ndugire, a young businesswoman in Ruiru town, cannot imagine her life without digital technology. She says one way digital technology has helped her is the availability of mobile apps for her reproductive health.

Some of the apps she uses, she adds, provide a safe and confidential space for young people—they can have questions about sexual and reproductive health answered by professionals.

“Having access to digital technology has also enabled me to use a period tracking app that has helped me to better understand my health and have a close control of my menstrual cycle. I am able to know my unique patterns. This would not have been the case if I was not in the digital space,” Ms Ndugire says.