There Aren’t Nearly Enough Women on the Internet

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development met in Mexico City on March 17, 2013 Photograph by Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

At its annual meeting in Mexico City on Saturday, the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development—a panel headed by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim that helps countries make Internet policy—set a goal of ensuring that women around the world have equal access to the Web by 2020.

That’s ambitious. According to Intel, which in January published the first global study (PDF) of the subject, overall 23 percent—or 200 million—fewer women than men in developing countries are online. In sub-Saharan Africa nearly half as many women as men have Internet access, and in South Asia, a third fewer go online. (Latin America, interestingly, has nearly equal access between the genders.)

Women in developing countries spend more time at home than men, making them less likely to be in public places where they can use computers in Internet cafes. Women are generally poorer than men and have less control over household wealth. When they have spare cash, they’re more likely to use it to pay for necessities. Women also have lower literacy rates, so they may not be able to read or type. In Barcelona last month the GSMA, the smartphone industry association, announced an international design challenge for software programmers to come up with operating systems and apps for people who are less literate—emphasizing pictures over text, for instance.

Women in poor nations who do use the Web “may not find content that’s relevant to their lives,” said Ann Mei Chang, a former Google software executive who joined the U.S. Department of State last year and serves on the Broadband Commission’s Women’s Working Group. She was speaking at a meeting last week on women and Internet access at the Washington offices of Dalberg, an investment consultancy that advises companies doing business in the developing world. Online content in many countries is limited: Women who use the Web aren’t likely to find websites that speak to them, or coupons they can use at local stores. They don’t have time to play online games. Women in countries that enforce strict adherence to Islamic law can be harassed for joining Facebook and other social networking sites. “There are some regions,” said Chang, “where there are concerns that if women access mobile phones or the Internet, that could lead to promiscuity.”

According to the Intel report, 80 percent of women in poor countries who have access to the Internet say they use it to further their education. Thirty percent use it to earn more money, and 45 percent use it for job searches. But because the problem hasn’t gotten much international attention, Chang said, aid and philanthropic funding doesn’t flow to it, and countries have few incentives to do anything about it.

The UN has a history of setting targets that turn out to be unrealistic—it’s nowhere near reaching its 2015 goal of reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters or of cutting in half the number of people worldwide who suffer from hunger—and achieving equal Web access in just seven years may not be possible. But an unrealistic goal is better than none at all.

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