There’s a Gender Gap in Internet Usage. Closing It Would Open Up Opportunities for Everyone: Op-Ed by Dean Chakravorti in the Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Review

Bhaskar Chakravorti is a Senior Associate Dean at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

We have all heard about a gap when it comes to participation of women in the tech industry. Facebook, Google, and Apple have 17%, 19% and 23% women in their technology staffs, respectively. Multiple surveys, such as the “The Elephant in the Valley,” have documented systematic discrimination against women. And there’s a continuous barrage of news stories regarding the challenges that women face across a raft of iconic Silicon Valley firms. No more than a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs are held by women, consistent with the data that around 26% of the STEM workforce in developed countries is female. In developing countries, those differences are even greater.

But the gender gap problem doesn’t stop there. There’s also a shortage of women using some of the industry’s products. The International Telecommunications Union reports that the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than the proportion of men; this gender gap widens to 32.9% in the least developed countries. And even when a woman gets on a phone or is online, she might face additional hostility. A World Wide Web Foundation report says “women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive, often sexualized hate speech, direct threats of violence, harassment, and revenge porn involving use of personal/private information for defamation.”

What this speaks to is an opportunity for the tech industry — both to address internal diversity issues and to address how companies think about the products they create around the world.

Consider the benefits of narrowing the gender gap. When women are locked out of digital products, businesses lose customers and product development gets stymied. For example, the Connected Women report from the GSMA shows that women are less likely to be financially independent when the digital gender gap is wide.

Closing this gap would disproportionately help women and the global economy; a recent Accenture study suggests that women derive greater value from “digital fluency” in the workplace than men do. And a study of Kenya’s popular M-PESA mobile money service suggests that digital financial services can increase the participation of women in the workforce and create opportunities for women in the formal market economy. Plus, consider the new generation of unlikely entrepreneurs – on Facebook-owned Instagram – in socially conservative Saudi Arabia: a growing number of women are turning to the app to start businesses that can bypass both bureaucracies and social restrictions. Thousands of women have established Instagram businesses selling handicrafts, food, clothing and accessories. Moreover, women tend to have a disproportionate influence on decisions around family, community, and children. They tend to invest more of their earnings in their families than men do – almost 10 times more. So closing the digital gender gap would likely have far-reaching benefits.

Of course, this story is bigger then any one business goal. To quote the World Economic Forum’s founder, Dr. Klaus Schwab, “Achieving gender equality is obviously necessary for economic reasons. Only those economies (that) have full access to all their talent will remain competitive and will prosper. But even more important, gender equality is a matter of justice. As a humanity, we also have the obligation to ensure a balanced set of values.”

Read the full Op-Ed