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Digital Gender Divide: do women really not like technology?

Social innovation

23/03/2022

Young girls show an appreciation of technological tools equal to, if not greater than their male cohorts. So why do they get left behind? And what can be done to close the gap?

Women use technological tools less than men: a statement supported by data collected from all over the world showing that, to different extents, this gap is seen at all ages, regardless of the person's level of education or location. And even more alarming, the higher the level of technological skills considered, the larger the gap. Does this mean that women are for some reason less interested in technology? Or are there other factors at play?

If you can not measure it, you can not improve it

The first step is undoubtedly to collect pertinent and detailed data: only when we have a clear picture of the problem (if there is a problem, of course) can action be taken to correct the underlying causes. 

If you can not measure it, you can not improve it
-    Lord William Thomson Kelvin - 
 

Italy ranks 23rd in the Women in Digital (WiD) 2021 Scoreboard, prepared by the European Commission as part of the Digital Economy and Society Index, in terms of women's use of technological tools, languishing near the bottom of the classification with Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania while women are the most digital in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and the Netherlands. The data show that the reason for Italy’s below average performance is not the specialist skills and employment category (47 points, in line with the European average with Italy in 12th position) but the use of internet (47 points compared to the European average of 60, with Italy ranking 24th) and especially the internet user skills (37 points compared to the European average of 53, 25th place).

An interesting report prepared by Plan International and Bocconi University, sponsored by Unicredit Foundation, entitled "Sfide attuali e future per la parità di genere in Italia: il divario digitale di genere" (Current and future challenges for gender equality in Italy: the digital gender divide) noted that the issue of the digital gender divide and its impact on job training must also address the issue of gender barriers in the content and development of training and prevent gender segregation in learning and work functions, providing non-traditional career opportunities to both women and men at equal conditions. 
The report states that not only are 59% of the STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates men (74% considering only engineering graduates and 68.4% for science graduates) - and this situation is also true of the ICT sector - the employment prospects are not very encouraging either: after graduating with a STEM master's decree, 85% of the women graduates find work (compared to 92.5% of the men graduates) and, five years after graduation, 45.1% of the women have a permanent contract compared to 62.5% of the men. Not only that: five years after graduating, men earn on average 23.6% more than their female colleagues. This is the case even though female students graduate on average with higher scores and are more interested in cultural exchanges and work experience during their university.  

Not only are most of the STEM and ICT graduates male, but they also have better opportunities of finding and holding a job, as well higher salaries.  Yet young women appear to be very gifted in technology.

Any yet when they are young …

Another interesting aspect identified in the Plan International - Bocconi University report is that the gap between males and females is not "innate" but increases over time: up to around 24 years of age, women actually have greater digital skills than their male counterparts. But the gap widens with age to reach its widest after 55 years of age. There are probably many reasons for this steady distancing of women from technology, including social and cultural factors

The relationship between women and technology is probably affected by a mix of cultural factors - digital being   seen as a “boy thing”- and time for personal growth over their lives.

Although part of the school curriculum, ICT should be something of a lifelong learning experience: in a country like Italy, where domestic duties still often fall to women, the opportunity for them to upgrade and develop their technological skills in their spare time is very limited. Moreover, digital skills, defined as the ability to acquire, process and communicate digital information, is conditioned by people's social-cultural backgrounds, including their home environment, their cultural background and academic appetite. Digital skills are still seen as a “boy thing” for a vast swathe of the Italian population and this probably discourages many girls from attempting or continuing a career in this field. 

Remote work: a two-sided coin

2020 with its still unresolved Covid-19 pandemic has changed the playing field: by choice or necessity, more people have ventured into the realm of technology for both their jobs and daily lives. On the one hand, the possession of a smartphone and the ability to use it now separates those who can access a series of services easily and immediately and between those who, if they manage to access it, do so via  lengthy and laborious procedures. On the other hand, remote work, video calls, cloud and a plethora of other technologies have made their way into the daily working lives of a vast number of workers who did not see the need for them up until then. Moreover, remote work has allowed a more efficient work/life balance which, if it is true as mentioned that women bear the brunt of domestic labour, could act in their favour. 

Today, having little or no digital expertise holds people back from a work point of view, and also from a social point of view: technological skills are vital for inclusion

Obviously, there is another side to the coin, well actually two: the first is temporary and relates to the pandemic-triggered situation. If women have been carrying out most of the household duties and looking after the children, then the long months of home schooling will have affected them considerably. The second relates to access to digital tools: need has driven more people to rediscover ICT in all its aspects and this is more true of men than women with the very real risk that they may be excluded from the labour market.

Invest in the future. Now

A commitment to closing the gender digital divide benefits all members of society and not just women, just as is the case for sustainability. The drive for greater digitalisation must involve young women and girls so they feel able and encouraged to enter the STEM and ICT sectors, as well as all other age brackets, regardless of their employment status and role. All those women who have never used internet or technological tools should want to and should be encouraged to do so and those women with basic skills should be encouraged to develop them.

Ongoing training and engagement of women in the ICT field are fundamental to creating a digital world that is truly inclusive and representative of the rights, aspirations and ambitions of society as a whole

There are two key tools.
The first is ongoing training, to be increasingly personalised especially but not only at work, so as to allow real personal growth aware that digital inclusion also implies social inclusion.
The second is the increasing involvement of women in ICT professions because only with a balanced representation of both genders will tomorrow's technologies be properly inclusive.