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Digital Inclusion

Women & technology: impacts of the digital gender divide

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Over the past 20 years Africa's access to the Internet has grown considerably, spurred by the mass rollouts of connectivity infrastructure and mobile communication devices which are helping to bring millions of Africans online and opening up new economic opportunities.

World Bank data shows that 160 million Africans gained broadband Internet access between 2019 and 2022 alone.

However, large connectivity gaps remain. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 67% of the world's population was online in 2023, but in Africa only 37% of people were using the Internet.

The International Finance Corporation estimates that the Internet economy could reach US$712 billion by 2025, accounting for 8.5% of the continent's GDP.

However, Africa has become the continent with one of the largest digital gender gaps globally. ITU data shows that just 32% of African women used the Internet in 2023, compared to 42% of African men, while the global average for women was 65%.

Percentage of female and male population using the Internet (2023)
(Source: International Telecommunications Union)
(Source: International Telecommunications Union)

Women's access to and use of IT lags

Despite the growing proliferation of entry-level communications devices, certain factors still keep devices out of reach for many Africans, particularly women, leaving them unable to adequately access and benefit from improving connectivity in the region.

In 2022 the GSMA found that women in sub-Saharan Africa are 30% less likely to own a smartphone than their male counterparts and 20% less likely to use mobile Internet than men.

The average price of 1GB of mobile data stood at 5% of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in Africa in 2021, compared to the global target of no more than 2% of the monthly GNI per capita.

With many countries still facing high data costs, this dampens the affordability of Internet services and the advanced usage of ICTs for many women, who generally earn less than men in the region.

In fact, the International Labour Organization found that in 2022 the median monthly income of sub-Saharan African men was more than twice that of women.

Chenai Chair, the founder of tech research repository My Data Rights and a senior program officer at Mozilla Foundation, believes that the impact of culture on digital gender parity cannot be ignored as the continent's engagement with technology deepens.

"It is important when implementing tech-based solutions for issues related to gender to look at the context, understand how the policy and regulatory environment address or do not address gender inequity and how cultural and social norms may hinder or progress solutions," she said.

Chair also advocates for a focus on community-level approaches to address gender issues – such as community centers which focus on marginalized groups, coding camps and artificial intelligence (AI) bootcamps for women.

A mixed outlook for tech-focused higher education

The role of education in supporting the access to and use of technologies on the continent cannot be overstated.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has referred to education as the "ultimate equalizer" for the reduction of poverty and inequality.

Females accounted for 50.14% of Africa's total population in 2021, but only 7.2% of females were enrolled in sub-Saharan Africa's tertiary institutions that year, compared to 10.4% of men. This was also well below the global average for women in tertiary institutions of 41.7%, according to research from Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA).

It is positive that the continent recorded a high proportion of female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related graduates at 47%, the highest globally.

However, women's careers prospects in the space remain significantly dimmer than those of their male counterparts.

Key indicators of STEM-related tertiary education outcomes
(Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa)
(Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa)

Female entrepreneurs lament fewer opportunities, more challenges

The experiences of female entrepreneurs in the African tech ecosystem have been colored by gender issues, impacting their growth and success in the space.

Disrupt Africa's recent research into gender equality in the African tech ecosystem identified several obstacles which African female founders believe hinder participation.

Almost 58% of respondents said they lacked access to funding and reported feeling excluded from the ecosystem; 50% identified the behavior of their male counterparts within their professional network as an obstacle; and 42.3% faced limited access to mentorship, coaching and accelerator programs.

Biggest obstacles faced by female founders
(Source: Disrupt Africa)
(Source: Disrupt Africa)

The large funding gap between men and women entrepreneurs in the tech startup space is a key source of concern for female entrepreneurs.

According to the same report, out of 711 African tech startups that received funding between January 2022 and April 2023, only 21% of them had a female co-founder and 11.7% had a female CEO.

African startups received a combined US$4.1 billion in funding, but only US$369.1 million of this went to female-founded startups and $119.1 million to startups headed by female CEOs.

Percentage of funding for startups with women in leadership roles
(Source: Disrupt Africa)
(Source: Disrupt Africa)

Gwera Kiwana is the co-founder of Women Who Build Africa (WWBA), a community for women and non-binary people to connect and support one another whilst working in the African technology ecosystem.

She advocates for better practices around venture capital (VC) funding of startups on the continent, such as placing more women in leadership positions with decision-making power over choosing targets for investment.

Kiwana believes this will help to encourage lived experience parity within the funds themselves, helping to shape their approach and understanding of the potential of female entrepreneurs.

"It all starts with who is writing the cheques, with who is on these investment committees," she explained.

In this regard, the region's investors still have a way to go – of the 67 investors assessed by the Disrupt Africa survey, 52.2% did not have any women in leadership positions, while 13.4% had only women leaders.

Kiwana said investment funds need to prioritize seeking out women-founded startups, describing the narrative that women-founded companies are difficult to find as "lazy."

Additionally, she encourages investors to engage more with women-focused communities such as WWBA to broaden their pool of potential investment targets.

"Women tend to do more with less… they are the most innovative. Especially when one is underestimated, one tends to be more prudent with how they run their businesses. Yet we still have a problem with funding female founders," Kiwana pointed out.

Chair and Kiwana point out that the divide also runs deeper than along gender lines and requires a more deliberate focus on the inclusion of other underrepresented groups – across age, sexual orientation and disabilities for example.

In this vein Chair also highlighted the Mozilla Foundation's investment in empowering and funding gender and sexuality responsive projects on the continent.

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She cites examples such the Common Voice program, which focused use cases that would provide solutions for women, and particularly those from lower income backgrounds and based in rural areas as well as the In Real Life fund, which is supporting LGBTQI+ chatbots for Southern African youths.

"Our approach to this work is driven by local needs, supporting local voices and entrepreneurs, and solving local problems," Chair concluded.

Related posts:

*Top image source: Image by freepik.

— Chiti Mbizule, correspondent, special to Connecting Africa

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