Closing the digital gender gap for a more equitable world

Women’s Rights Online

Joanna Peña-Bickley
5 min readMay 20, 2021

Closing the digital gender gap for a more equitable world

The world wide web foundation (WWWF), founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Rosemary Leith, released a report that provides a global snapshot of the state of digital gender inequality and finds that even where women are closing the gap on basic internet access, they face a multitude of additional barriers to using the internet and fully participating online.

The internet, with its great potential for economic opportunity and social empowerment, has long been celebrated as a force for greater equality — breaking down barriers for those previously held back by their geography, wealth, race, class and gender. But while digital connectivity has improved life for billions of people, it is falling short on its promise to beat back inequality.

Around the world, fewer women than men use the internet. Web Foundation analysis has found men are 21% more likely to be online than women — rising to 52% in the world’s least developed countries (LDCs). And this gender gap in internet access continues to grow. Data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) suggests that globally it has increased by 55% between 2013 to 2019.

The global gender gap has increased owing to the rapid growth in the number of male Internet users in developing countries.

Note: * ITU estimate. Penetration rates in this chart refer to the number of women/men that use the Internet, as a percentage of the respective total female/male population.

The gap in internet access is just one element of a much greater digital gender divide. This divide includes all of the ways that women are less able to use and influence the technology that is reshaping our world. There are many ways the internet we have today is not working equally well for men and women, from gaps in quality of connectivity and digital skills, to the threats that
disproportionately impact the safety and rights of women and girls — all of which prevent women from fully benefiting from the opportunities that digital technology offers.

Left unchallenged, the growing digital divide threatens progress on gender equality as a whole.

The internet is one of the most empowering technologies the world has ever seen, but unless women are equally able to benefit from it, the gender divide risks driving further inequality.

Research Methodology. (n=10,000)

The development of the questionnaire included a consultative process with selected Women’s Rights Online network partners and the country research partners. A uniform survey questionnaire tool was applied across the regions and translated into the local languages when necessary. The surveys
were then conducted between September 2019 and February 2020 in four countries representing three geographical locations — Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia and Uganda. These countries were selected on the basis of their regional diversity, covering Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

The surveys were complemented by qualitative focus groups and key informant interviews in those countries. In each case a stratified random sampling approach was used with a maximum sampling error of 3 percentage points.

In each country WWWF conducted four focus groups and three key informant interviews — 16 focus groups and 12 key Informant Interviews in total. WWWF’s approach focused on ensuring context is nuanced at a country level and consent to participate is well informed. We worked with selected research partners in each of the countries with an understanding of gender dynamics in each of the countries. The focus groups were stratified according to locations and income with one mixed high-income group and one female low-income urban group, one mixed low-income rural and one female only low-income group per country.

In Ghana the urban high income group was women only due to a challenge in logistics, however it still provided meaningful insight. All 131 participants were internet users above the age of 15. Our focus was to document women’s insights and gain comparative perspectives on men’s insights. The discussion and the key informant interview guides used were similar across the regions.

Key Findings

  • Promising results on basic access: Three of the four countries studied had relatively narrow gender divides in internet access, although in Uganda men remain 43% more likely to be online than women. Data shows that globally men remain 21% more likely to online, rising to 52% in least developed countries.
  • A hidden digital gender divide: Using meaningful connectivity as a more comprehensive measure of the quality of access — taking into account speeds, data allowance, device type and regular access — gender gaps were far larger. In Colombia, which has a 1% gender gap in basic access, the meaningful connectivity gap is 17%.
  • Skills are a barrier to access: A lack of skills emerged as the biggest factor keeping women offline. 50% of women in rural areas said they didn’t use the internet because they don’t know how. 45% of women in urban areas said the same.
  • Women create less content: When women do get online, they are less likely to create certain types of content. Men are 29% more likely than women to post comments about political, social or economic issues, and 29% more likely to sell or advertise a product or service online.
  • Greater concerns over privacy: Across a range of personal data categories, women are more concerned about their privacy than men. Focus group participants shared concerns about having their personal data misused, including in relation to online harassment and abuse.
  • Less trust in online companies. Women were also more skeptical about tech companies using their data responsibly. 54% of female respondents said they would not allow companies to use any of their data, compared with 47% of men.

Download the full report

Policy Action to Close the Digital Gender Gap

5 steps for governments, companies and individuals to urgently close the digital gender gap in meaningful connectivity, and to put in place strategies to advance women’s rights and participation online:

  1. Collect and publish gender data in the technology sector
  2. Adopt Meaningful Connectivity as the target for internet use and tackle the gender gap
  3. Promote digital skills and ICT education for women and girls
  4. Support women’s participation in technology development, local content creation and ICT innovation
  5. Safeguard the online privacy of women and girls

We urgently need to close the digital gender divide and make sure that women and girls are able to fully participate online without fear for their safety or their rights. Until we do, the internet will continue to work against progress on gender equality.

Digital technologies will not automatically empower marginalized people and break traditional power structures without long term investment and commitment to overcome existing inequalities online.

To see the full findings and detailed policy recommendations, read the global report.



Joanna Peña-Bickley

Artist, Activist, Inventor, Designer of intelligent things that are useful, usable and magical. |