Gender equality in the information society - a review of current literature and recommendations for policy and practice

The rapid global spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and particularly the proliferation of mobile internet devices (ITU 2012a:2 ‐3), is redefining not only the realms of information and communication, but the very nature of social structures and institutions (Castells 2000). ICT is an umbrella term that includes any communication device or application, encompassing radio, television, cellular phones, computer and network hardware and software, satellite systems and so on, as well as the various services and applications associated with them, such as video‐conferencing and distance learning (Rouse 2005). Television, computers, cellphones, the internet, and their delivery systems – cable, wireless, telephony, satellite, broadcast – converge to pave the way for what is referred to as the ‘information revolution’ or ‘digital revolution’. With the digital revolution, the way in which information is produced, stored, processed, distributed and exchanged is fundamentally transformed.

Today, the internet, as the backbone of our global information and communication systems, enables different hardware and software tools to come together as a massive global network. The resultant social phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘information society’ or ‘network society’.

The information society is not gender neutral – it has different implications for women and men, girls and boys, and for the relationships between them. It is therefore vital to begin reflecting more critically on how ICTs are changing the nature of gender relations in social, political, economic and cultural landscapes. On one hand is important to recognise and harness the potential of increased ICT access and connectivity for transforming gender power relations and empowering women ‐ especially those who are poor. As many have pointed out, connectivity increasingly marks a key difference between exclusion and opportunity and the question of ICT access is becoming central to the development agenda (see for example Gurumurthy, Nandini and Saloranta 2012).

On the other hand it is essential that we do not put all our faith in ICTs to ‘solve’ the problem of gender inequalities. Today, an increasing number of women have access to digital technologies. But all too often, when women use Smartphones or access the internet, the assumption is made that putting these technologies into their hands will be necessarily empowering. Without discounting any possibilities for gender transformative change in the information society, it is important to examine how techno‐social practices reproduce gender power differentials, what norms are privileged in the structures of the internet, and how the logic of techno-social spaces is contingent upon the design and production of technological architectures (Wajcman 2007).

The brief starts by discussing the existing data on the gender gap in access to ICTs, as a means to deepen understanding of the underlying barriers that constrain women’s effective participation in the information society. It moves on to a discussion of women’s rights and the empowerment capacity of the internet. It then explores the gender and ICT dimensions of key development sectors and issues, notably: women’s economic empowerment, ICT‐enabled learning for women and girls, women’s health and ICTs, gender‐responsive governance, women’s public‐political participation, violence against women and girls, and sexual rights.

Section 4 provides a ‘roadmap’ for developing a rights and citizenship approach to Gender and ICTs policy. Two interrelated issues – meaningful access to digital technologies for women and girls and open and egalitarian digital architecture – are discussed. Finally the brief identifies gaps in knowledge and sets out directions for policy and programming.

Table of contents

Glossary…………………………………………………………………………………………………4
Abbreviations………………………………………………………………………………………6
1. The information society and gender equality…………………………………………………………… 8
2. Mapping and building upon the emerging evidence on gender and ICTs………………….. 9
2.1. The gender gap in access to mobile phones: What the data says………………………………. 9
2.2. The gender gap in access to the Internet: What the data says………………………………….. 10
2.4. Understanding the gender gap in ICT access…………………………………………………………… 12
2.4.1. Structural factors……………………………………………………………………………………… 12
2.4.2. Social and relational factors ………………………………………………………………………. 12
2.4.3. Women and the ‘communication capacity’ gap …………………………………………….. 13
2.5. Women’s rights in the knowledge society………………………………………………………………….. 14
3. Critical themes for gender equality in the information society…………………………………. 16
3.1. ICTs and women’s economic empowerment…………………………………………………………….. 16
3.1.1. ICT-sector jobs and women ………………………………………………………………………. 16
3.1.2. Women in micro-work ………………………………………………………………………………. 16
3.1.3. ICTs for traditional livelihoods ……………………………………………………………………. 17
3.1.4. ICTs for small enterprises …………………………………………………………………………. 18
3.1.5. Mobile money as a route to economic empowerment……………………………………. 19
3.2. ICT-enabled learning for women and girls………………………………………………………….. 20
3.2.1. ICTs in formal education systems ………………………………………………………………. 21
3.2.2. ICTs in non-formal education ……………………………………………………………………. 22
3.3. Women’s health and ICTs…………………………………………………………………………………….. 24
3.4. ICTs, gender responsive governance and women’s public-political participation………. 26
3.4.1. ICTs and gender-responsive governance ……………………………………………………. 26
3.5. Violence against women………………………………………………………………………………………. 30
3.6. Identity and sexuality in the network society……………………………………………………………… 31
4. A Rights and Citizenship Roadmap for Policy and Programme Interventions on Gender and the Information Society…………………. 33
4.1. Meaningful access to digital technologies…………………………………………………………………. 34
4.2.1. Policy directions for meaningful access ………………………………………………………. 35
4.2. Open and egalitarian ICT architecture………………………………………………………………………. 36
5. Conclusion and recommendations…………………………………………………………………………….. 37
References……………………………………………………………………………………………… 41
Year of publication: 
2014