Insights from academia on Bridging the Digital Gender Divide in Africa
Written By Alessia Nana Ababio
Global digitalisation and technological innovation are continuously revolutionising how we communicate, work and study. However, the Internet, one of the most empowering technologies the world has ever seen, is not equally accessible to women, and the gender divide risks driving further inequalities. African women in particular are under-represented in the digital economy; a reality that threatens to further economically dis-empower and entrench their gender-inequality.
The panel on “Bridging the digital gender divide — Insights from academia” at the CODE online forum, moderated by Dr Winfred Onyas (University of Leicester/Principal Investigator, CODE), convened three academic experts: Dr Sheena Lovia Boateng (University of Ghana), Dr Rebecca Namatovu-Dawa (Copenhagen Business School) and Dr Lilia Giugni (Cambridge University/Gender Consultant, CODE) to provide academic and research-based perspectives on the digital gender divide in Africa. Three broad themes emerged from the panel discussion.
What academic questions are asked, data collection and gender stereotyping
Academic research can be biased and in so doing may contribute to widening the digital gender divide. Dr Giugni cautioned against researchers making assumptions about male/female preferences in technology, instead urging academics to undertake research that illuminates the diverse interests of women in technology, their assorted technological skills and different levels of access to technology. Also relevant, Dr Giugni added, is research that critically examines technology’s influence on gender justice, majorly because women are scarcely represented in key arenas e.g. parliaments and board rooms where important technology decisions are made.
On a similar note, Dr Boateng highlighted the need for academics to collect context-specific and actionable data upon which to act. The absence of such data is a major hindrance in the development of relevant solutions that will address the digital gender divide.
Female socialisation and gender stereotyping is another factor. According to Dr Namatovu-Dawa, the digital world is an online reflection of society. Herein, societal biases about women are replicated and multiplied, as are cultural perceptions about women’s roles and interests. In the main, Dr Boateng remarked, a deep-seated and multi-faceted problem emerges when women are portrayed as less interested in technology, not involved in rational thinking, and not ‘belonging’ in STEM.
2020 — Is the Gender Gap shrinking with the advent of the Covid-19 Pandemic?
COVID-19 has forced most industries, businesses and social institutions to operate online, which further amplifies the digital gender gap. Yet, the pandemic has created new opportunities for women to be more involved with technology.
Dr Boateng observed that today, women’s need for digital solutions is escalated due to their multilevel role in society: women use technologies and digital solutions to support their families, provide education and socialisation for their children; and for themselves, to study and work. It therefore becomes critical that women embed technology into their daily lives if they are to become important stepping stones in bridging the digital gender gap.
Digital gender-based violence and abuse is also a factor, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when reliance on digital devices significantly increased. Dr Giugni’s research shows that as millions of women worldwide connect to the internet to work and study, their exposure to digital abuse (e.g. digital stalking, online sexual harassment and other forms of gender motivated abuses) has remarkably increased. The violent behaviours potentially jeopardise women’s motivations and chances of accessing online services, education and other opportunities, which further widens the digital gender gap.
Dr Namatovu-Dawa raised a key question about the inclusivity of technology in Africa, notably citing the gross impact the pandemic has had on school children, whose education has stalled because they lack access to computers.
On balance, the panellists agreed that technology is a lifeline in the current pandemic and that it is in the best interest of all concerned to urgently address the associated digital gender challenges.
Can partnerships between academia and digital practitioners help to bridge the digital gender divide?
All three speakers affirmed the pertinent role of partnerships between academia and digital practitioners in bridging the digital gender gap. Dr Namatovu-Dawa advised that, as a first step towards finding a road map for action, academics must engage in context-specific and actionable research on the systemic relationship between technology, gender and social injustice. Academia cannot stand alone; partnerships and collaborations with governments, institutions, entrepreneurs and individuals are imperative and these must begin with dialogue, Dr Namatovu-Dawa stressed. Dialogue will ensure that stakeholders share information, develop actionable plans, produce case studies, prototype solutions and support affirmative action. Consistent and ongoing dialogue is necessary so that academics can produce real-time data to inform the work being done on the ground to bridge the digital gender divide.
Equally relevant is the role of academia in addressing socialisation questions and sensitising stakeholders (e.g. parents and community leaders) about the girl child — how she is raised and her involvement with technology. Dr Giugni used the term “social extrapreneurship” to encapsulate the collaborations between stakeholders in addressing the digital gender divide.
In closing, the panellists underscored the importance of making girls aware of the opportunities in STEM and introducing them to role models they can relate to. The panellists further underlined the importance of tackling the digital gender gap, given women’s multifaceted role in society and the related multiple challenges they face.
To view the full panel discussion click here.