Digital divide: key points and how to bridge them
ICT (information and communication technologies) offer many benefits: better access to information, lower costs in the labor sector, better connections between people, etc. But digitization is not happening equally around the world, and this imbalance in access to ICT and the Internet is known as the digital divide. This problem affects 52% of women and 42% of men in the world and becomes even more serious when we talk about regions: According to December 2021 data from the Internet World Stats portal, only 43.1% of Africa's inhabitants are connected to the Internet, compared to 88.4% of Europeans and 93.4% of North Americans. The data shows the technological divide that separates some countries from others, even though 3G and 4G networks now reach nearly every corner of the globe in anticipation of the massive rollout of 5G. At this point, it is important to distinguish between Internet access and digital literacy, which is the learning process that enables a person to acquire the skills to understand and use the educational, economic, and social potential of new technologies.
Causes and types
Originally, the digital divide was attributed to underdevelopment and viewed as a temporary phenomenon that would disappear as technology spread. Instead, the divide persists today despite the mass marketing of electronic devices with Internet access. The causes range from the high price of these devices, to a lack of knowledge about their use, to the lack of infrastructure for their access. In addition, there are three types of digital divide:
- Access gap: it refers to the opportunities people have to access this resource. Although access to ICTs has been facilitated in recent years, this inequality still exists; people’s socioeconomic situation plays a crucial role in the accessibility of new technologies, i.e., the lower the economic status, the more complicated it is to access these technologies, whether due to the lack of the necessary technical equipment or the type of Internet connection available, or the lack thereof. Finally, it is worth noting the importance of hardware or technological devices within the digital divide, as there is no point in owning a technological device that is considered obsolete thanks to new updates.
- Usage gap: This refers to the lack of digital skills that hinders the use of technology. In this regard, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) points out that there are 40 countries where more than half of the inhabitants do not know how to attach a file to an email. Age, among other factors, plays an important role in this second divide, as there is a gap between generations: those who grew up without technologies or with very few tools, those who grew up with technologies, and those who were born and raised in a fully digital world.
- Usability gap: sometimes people have the digital skills to use the Internet, but not the knowledge to use it well and make the most of it. For example, in terms of access to quality information. It is important not to confuse this with the second divide, where the problems stem from the difficulty in learning how to use the technologies, while in the third divide the problem stems from the specific barriers that prevent the full use of these technologies.
Some examples of these third divide barriers are: the level of education of citizens; the higher our level of education, the easier it will be for us to use these technologies, as well as the ability to select reliable information that will provide us with better utilities; geographic location is an important variable for access to these technologies, as the differences in development and infrastructure between geographic areas can make a big difference, as it is not as easy to connect to the Internet in a rural area as it would be in an urban area.
About the digital divide between genders
For Europe, a gender-equal recovery is crucial for both society and the economy. The European Institute for Gender Equality has shown that Europe would benefit macroeconomically from a successful and comprehensive gender equality strategy. In this situation, digital transformation is crucial. According to the European Commission’s report “ICT for the world of work: digital skills at work”, 90% of occupations now require basic digital skills.
The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which brings together a range of relevant data on Europe’s digital policies, is used to measure the EU’s success in the digital sphere. The correlation between the Digital Economy and Society Index and the Gender Equality Index shows that societies with greater gender equality also perform better in the digital economy, which is critical for long-term economic success.
The top performers in both the Digital Economy and Society Index and the Gender Equality Index are Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland. The figures show that it is possible to close the digital gender gap by making progress in closing the gender equality gap in general.
Statistically, there are gaps between male and female representation in many digital areas:
- Access to connectivity and digital technologies: according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) report, daily internet use is almost the same for both genders: 76% of women and 78% of men. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even women who have daily access to the Internet use it for less difficult issues than men. The situation worsens when age and education level are included. For example, 21% of men among those with low education have never used the Internet, while this percentage rises to 27% among women.
- Development activities conducted online: There are slight gender differences in online learning: women are more likely to seek out training courses and educational activities that lead to professional development. The percentage of women who regularly use the internet for such activities ranges from 95% in Sweden to 66% in Bulgaria. According to the EIGE study on youth and digitisation, women aged 16-24 are more likely to use technology creatively for online exchanges than men of the same age (60% and 56% respectively).
- Use of mobile connectivity and social media representation for professional purposes: When it comes to professional digital activities, there is still a large gender gap. For example, almost half as many well-educated women (19%) use mobile internet for professional purposes as men (33%). Women are also significantly less represented on professional social networks such as LinkedIn. According to the statistical data, the share of women is 43.7 % compared to 56.3 % for men.
- Representation in ICT: According to Eurostat data from 2018, only 1% of girls said they intend to work in an ICT-related field (compared to 10% of boys). Furthermore, according to STEM education statistics, less than 30% of researchers in 2023 are women, indicating an under-representation of women in STEM fields both globally and in Europe. ICT is characterised by a strong gender divide, with 82% of students being male. These figures are confirmed by the DESI 2022 report, according to which one in three STEM graduates and only 19% of ICT specialists are women. Consequently, on average, more than 8 out of 10 IT specialists in the EU are men.
- Entrepreneurship and business creation: According to EIGE calculations based on EU LFS microdata, women are even more marginalised in tech start-ups: Only 7% of self-employed IT professionals employ at least one woman. According to the EU Start-up Monitor 2020-2021 report, female-only teams make up only 7% of start-ups, compared to 64% of male-only teams. According to OECD research, women-led start-ups typically receive about 20% less investment than men-led start-ups.
- Research and development field: According to the EIGE report, very few women scientists and engineers work in high-tech fields that are likely to be involved in the development of new digital technologies. Only one fifth of the more than 32 million scientists and engineers working in high-tech fields in the EU in 2019 are women. This percentage has not changed since 2010.
Consequences of the digital divide
Technological discrimination is a form of poverty and social exclusion that deprives a segment of the population of essential resources for development and wealth creation. This situation was clearly felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many students and workers found it difficult to telework and take online courses. The main impacts of the digital divide are explained below:
- Cut-offness and isolation: people living in remote areas where the internet cannot reach them are cut off. The same is true for residents of urban areas who live without internet access, leading to social isolation.
- Barrier to study and knowledge: The coronavirus crisis has resulted in teachers and students not having sufficient technical and digital skills to continue their work and studies from home. Limited access to knowledge also increases ignorance.
- It exacerbates social inequalities: digital illiteracy reduces the chances of finding a job or accessing a quality job, which has a negative impact on workers’ economies.
- Gender discrimination: The digital divide harms women more than men, which violates the principles of gender equality.
Strategies to reduce the digital divide
- Investing in infrastructure: Many areas do not have access to the internet, and in many others access is very limited. However, expanding technological coverage would enable many people to seek jobs and telecommuting outside the city. Building quality infrastructure is one of the Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the UN.
- Quality digital education: Digital literacy is undoubtedly one of the most important means to reduce the digital divide. A measure that can also be applied in different areas through such simple proposals as setting up training programmes for people without resources, teaching basic skills to older people and sectors that did not grow up with a computer, or promoting the use of online training platforms.
- Qualified digital personnel: Reducing the digital divide also requires professionals who are able to deal with new technological developments and, above all, to share knowledge and know-how with others. New digital applications and routines require people who have mastered the environment and know how to handle it properly.
- Facilitating access to technology: There are various projects promoted by public and private institutions to facilitate access to technology, from wifi networks to providing free internet access and increasing connection speed, etc.
Among the most important initiatives is Starlink, a satellite internet provider that brings fast and reliable internet to underserved communities. The SpaceX subsidiary was founded in 2020 by Elon Musk with the aim of providing satellite internet to areas of the world that have limited or no access to the internet. In Germany, the platform is at the forefront of efforts to bridge the digital divide, and more than 1,000 users in Germany already benefit from its services.
The company has made significant progress in connecting rural areas in Germany by bringing high-speed internet to previously unserved or underserved areas. Starlink offers speeds of up to 150 Mbps and latency of up to 40 ms, making it a viable solution for people living in remote areas.
Starlink will launch its first batch of 60 satellites in Germany this summer, which could have a significant impact on the country’s digital divide and economy. By giving more people access to the internet, Starlink could open up new markets and create new opportunities for businesses while lowering the cost of internet access.
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