Opinion: How to tackle least developed countries' gender gaps in tech use and data

How many women in least developed countries have access to the internet? Photo by: Arne Hoel / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

In Uganda, a businesswoman is using Pinterest to keep track of trends in the U.S. and Europe for her basket designs. In Comoros, a perfumer promotes her locally sourced and scented beauty products on Facebook, trying to garner buyers. And in the Solomon Islands, one family’s remote beach bungalows can now be reserved online.

Yes, the internet now allows — some of — us to digitally crisscross the globe. But information about the ways we use digital tools, and about who is benefitting from them and who is not, remains elusive for many parts of the world and for many segments of the population, even with all of our innovations.

Take the examples above of women who hail from what the United Nations identifies as least developed countries, or LDCs, because of the structural impediments to development and low incomes. These women’s entrepreneurial efforts are notable, but knowing of one, two, or three standouts isn’t enough.

We need more data. And we need to use it, knowing that women with the right knowledge and tools create opportunities — and this results in greater well-being and economic advancement.

How many female business owners are using social media in Uganda, where active social media users are 5.6% of the population? How many women have smartphones in Comoros, where 4.9% of mobile connections have broadband? How many have access to the internet in the Solomon Islands, where internet penetration is at 22%? Answers to such questions and others like it about women, commerce, and technology in the world’s poorest countries are limited.

Because of this, economic development support specific to LDCs may not be best directed to ensure equity, and it’s difficult to monitor progress.

And there is a risk that women in LDCs — nations that are, by definition, lagging behind — are left even further behind amid the current tech revolution.

Power in numbers

Some countries are gathering gender-disaggregated data and using it. In an interview last year, Gambian Vice President Isatou Touray said: “If I see a report that shows this is where the gender gaps lie it informs my intervention in that particular aspect. For example, when you know that there are almost 80% of the women in the agriculture sector … you find that they are marginalized in that processing sector but they are dominating in agriculture. So you know you are losing the whole essence of empowerment and poverty reduction if you don’t take those women into account.”

Identifying and addressing such gaps in the digital realm is especially important in the world’s poorest countries, where women often have less education, less money, and less access to opportunities.

Across the globe, there is a gender gap in the use of technology. In developed countries in 2019, 87.6% of men and 86% of women used the internet. But compare this to LDCs, with 24.4% of men and 13.9% of women.

The internet penetration rates for men and women in 2019. Source: ITU

Worryingly, the gender imbalance in internet use in LDCs has widened since 2013. Knowing this much can at least spur us to action.

Screen saving

Access to the internet is a prerequisite for pursuing opportunities in digital trade. And most people access the internet via their phones. Here, too, the data shows a gap, with women in low- and middle-income countries 10% less likely than men to own a phone. That is 197 million fewer women with phones.

GSMA estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across low- and middle-income countries could add $700 billion in GDP growth over the next five years.

GDP per capita versus gender gap in mobile ownership.

There are efforts being made to do the research and analysis that LDCs need to create a fertile space for technology use and digital commerce. For example, good data is available from ITU and UN Women’s Women Count program, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, or UNCTAD, is collecting data from member states. UNCTAD is also producing assessments with the goal to assist countries as they enter the digital economy, in part supported by the Enhanced Integrated Framework, which works with LDCs to spur trade development.

The UNCTAD studies found persistent barriers for women that include a lack of policies designed to support female participation in the digital realm. Recommendations include prioritizing skills development for women and girls in ICT, tailored lending standards for women-owned businesses, and — importantly — monitoring e-commerce activities with gender-disaggregated data.

For many LDCs, e-commerce is nonexistent or just getting off the ground, so the recognition that it should be monitored — and, with that, the gender dimension — is a good step. At WTO, the group of LDCs has flagged the general lack of statistical data on e-commerce in their countries, as global institutions are noting the gaps in information about many aspects of electronic commerce across the world.

We Are Social collects and reports valuable information about the digital world, including country reports that have gender-disaggregated data related to credit card use and banking. In Zambia, for example, 9.1% of women make online transactions, compared with 14% of men.

Dividing lines

The world’s poor have seen positive results from new technologies, including health care improvements, information access, mobile banking, and trade opportunities. But these tools somehow haven’t been fully harnessed to give us information about their use and impacts on gender inequality, whether decreasing or increasing.

For the 47 LDCs and their 880 million people, technology’s potential to empower but also to impede must be taken very seriously. We need to use it the way people are: to get the information we need. And what we need is to know where more support is needed, where tech use isn’t inclusive, and where women are making inroads, so we can ensure women can harness the digital world as much as men.

Studies have shown that when women have access to information and the ability to start businesses, incomes increase — as does GDP. Using technology to help us understand who needs certain tools, and arming people to use them, can help spur the growth that is needed in so many places. Then, an agricultural processor in Ethiopia might get export orders for coffee beans directly via her website. Or in Nepal, a designer’s original pashmina creations might be marketed directly to consumers. Whatever the medium and wherever the country, at least women will have options, and those options just might spur more bright ideas.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

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About the author

  • Deanna Ramsay

    Deanna Ramsay is the managing editor of Enhanced Integrated Framework's Trade for Development News at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.