Bridging digital gender gap through inclusive STEM education
In fact, limitations in access to digital technologies by women and girls are keeping half of society from harnessing the benefits of an increasingly digital world.
This was also acknowledged when International Women’s Day was observed in March under the United Nations designated theme ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’.
Whereas Africa’s digital economy is projected to be worth US$180 billion by 2025, with the potential to reach US$712 billion by 2050, women are being left out of this vast unfolding market.
The prevalence of poor and unreliable electricity, combined with the high costs of data, hinders access to the internet which is key to digital connections. Currently, Africa’s mobile penetration stands at 25%, which is the lowest in the world.
The situation looks more serious when the digital divide is examined from a gender perspective.
The latter brings to the fore the various disadvantages women and girls face, not only in terms of digital connections, but also in terms of cultural barriers, stereotypes, and negative experiences which are unique to their situation.
State of gender digital divide
Findings of the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022 indicate that the mobile internet gender gap across the globe had been reducing, but progress has stalled.
In low and middle-income countries, women are 16% less likely than men to use mobile internet, which means that 264 million fewer women in these countries than men use mobile internet.
The gender gap is the widest in Sub-Saharan Africa where it shows hardly any shift over the years. Women in this region are still 7% less likely than men to own a mobile phone; and 18% less likely than men to own a smartphone.
Overall, Sub-Saharan African women are 37% less likely than men to use the mobile internet – the largest gender gap globally.
Bridging the current digital gap on the continent will not be an easy task.
According to the United Nations Broadband Commission, the cost of bringing about the digital transformation in the region to achieve nearly universal, reliable and affordable access for more than a billion Africans by 2030 is over US$100 billion.
Impact and barriers
The digital gender divide at global level continues to affect women and girls in various ways.
The UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report revealed that the exclusion of women from the digital economy is estimated to have cost low- and middle-income countries US$1 trillion over the last decade, which is expected to increase to US$1.5 trillion by 2025 unless mechanisms are sought to address the problem.
In addition to ensuring gender equality, women’s inclusive participation in the digital sphere is acknowledged to potentially have a significant contribution to make towards addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which underscore the importance of gender equality and women empowerment.
The critical role of digital technologies is also emphasised when looked at from the point of view of the increasing type of jobs to come.
It has been estimated that by 2050, 75% of jobs globally will be related to STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics areas. While 90% of future jobs will require ICT skills, some 2 million new jobs are projected to be created in the computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering fields.
In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, an estimated 230 million jobs are expected to require digital skills by 2030. Unfortunately, women and girls happen to be underrepresented in these critical areas of study.
The major barriers that account for the digital gender divide have been widely identified as affordability (the high cost of devices and data plans), low level of literacy (including digital literacy), the lack of content and services targeting women, cultural stereotyping related to traditional views of gender roles, and safety and security related to risk of online abuse.
Addressing these enormous challenges together with their implications requires concerted efforts at every level.
The role of HEIs
In general, women and girls’ underrepresentation in industries, academia and the broader technology sector is common at global level but highly pronounced in the context of Africa where limited efforts are directed at addressing the challenge.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 18 to 31% of science researchers are women, compared to 49% in Southeast Europe and in the Caribbean; 44% in Central Asia and Latin America; and 37% in the Arab States.
One stumbling block in bridging the digital gender divide is the limited participation of women and girls in STEM subjects compared to their male counterparts.
Despite their encouraging performance and participation at the primary school-level, and outnumbering young men in tertiary education at global level, young women are still a minority in STEM education, at only 35%, and in information and communication technology studies, at just 3% compared to 8% of boys.
In the Eastern and Southern Africa countries, where data is available, women make up only 30% of tertiary ICT graduates.
In general, current findings suggest the crucial roles schools and universities can play in enhancing women and girls’ participation in education and especially in STEM education.
Particular attention needs to be given to the transition from the secondary to the post-secondary stage which appears to be the most critical stage where women begin to be underrepresented.
In addition to developing effective and inclusive policies and strategies to support women’s involvement in STEM teaching, institutions should examine how much their environments are conducive to the promotion of this ideal.
The implementation of institutional policies that promote gender equality in tertiary education, in particular STEM subjects, is crucial to ensure that women and girls are equipped with the skills required to participate meaningfully in the digital economy.
Research shows that biased gender norms and stereotypes embedded in teachers, curricula, textbooks, and teaching and learning practices have the potential to derail girls’ choices of what to study in schools and universities.
This negative influence will have its own impact in terms of the careers and employment opportunities women and girls wish to exploit later with the potential to reinforce existing gaps.
On the other hand, the availability of positive role models in schools and tertiary institutions are not only useful in mitigating gender stereotypes, but they are also important in providing the right coaches and mentors to the growing number of women who wish to be active players in the digital world.
In addition to taking an active role in challenging socio-cultural barriers that limit women’s access to digital technologies and changing the attitudes of their own educators, tertiary institutions should also be concerned about augmenting various initiatives that promote digital skills and literacy programmes in order to address the capacity building needs of women and girls.
It is only through a significant increase in the number and quality of women scientists, researchers and engineers, who will drive the required innovation and creativity, that the digital divide in the African continent and elsewhere can be meaningfully addressed.
Towards a more collaborative solution
The importance of enabling women to participate in the technology space at individual, societal and economic levels cannot be overemphasised.
Enabling women and other marginalised groups in the technology sphere not only has the potential to harness women’s innovative capacity that meet their needs and promote gender equality but it also contributes significantly to the advancement of science and technology in a given country.
No doubt, tertiary education institutions have a critical role in terms of addressing the various challenges that facilitate the digital divide but they may not be the only agents to bring about sustainable solutions toward the creation of an equitable digital future.
It is hence essential for governments, the private sector, civil society and higher education institutions to work together towards mitigating the major obstacles that derail women’s participation in the digital world.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States; and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a commentary.