Over half of women worldwide still do not use the internet, according to a report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The first report in the ITU’s new “Measuring Digital Development” series estimates that 52 percent of women do not use the internet, compared to 42 percent of all men. More men than women use the internet in every region of the world except the Americas, which is has near-parity.
The ITU data shows that while the digital gender gap has been shrinking in Europe and in the Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet countries), it is growing in Africa, the Arab world and the Asia-Pacific region. The gap is widest in developing countries, especially the least developed countries, where on average only one fifth of people are online.
A total of 4.1 billion people use the internet around the world, which represents 53.6 percent of the global population. That leaves around 3.6 billion people offline. Europe is the region with the highest internet use (82.5 percent), while Africa is the region with the lowest (28.2 percent).
In terms of access to mobile services, the ITU study shows that 96 percent of the world population lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal and 93 percent lives within reach of a 3G or higher network. Of the 85 countries that provided data on mobile phone ownership, 61 had a higher proportion of men with mobile phones than women.
While mobile networks are available in most places to provide internet access, the ITU found that digital skills remain a barrier to increasing internet use, especially in the least developed countries. In 40 out of 84 countries for which data are available, less than half the population had basic computer skills, such as copying a file or sending an e-mail with an attachment.
Amid all the excited talk about the impending 5G revolution, the Internet of Things, unlimited data, and new devices, this study provides a very sobering counter-narrative that all players within the mobile telecom space would be well advised to pay attention to.
Given that women represent half the population, the ITU report means that more than a quarter of the people in the world do not use the internet, via mobile or otherwise. The number is staggering, and the fact that we are now almost a quarter century into the internet age makes it even more concerning.
For mobile operators and other internet service providers, the first takeaway is that there is a huge untapped market for services—3.6 billion potential users. The second is that that market cannot be tapped without a great deal of investment and effort. Enormous economic, social and political forces are standing in the way of half the world’s women becoming connected to the internet, and in order for them to longer be left behind, the following three things are necessary—outreach, education and economic incentives. Lack of cellular infrastructure does not appear to be at the core of the problem. Mobile operators, especially but not limited to those that operate in developing countries, must conduct outreach aimed at women, especially poor women, make service available to them at low cost or free of charge, and help make the unfamiliar technology less intimidating.
If they can make inroads, MNOs will ultimately be able to realize tremendous dividends, in terms of data consumed, devices sold, and networks expanded. If the world is going to be fully connected, the world’s women cannot be left so far behind. This dramatic shortfall in gender parity betokens a lopsided development process that ultimately places profound limitations on the development of the mobile internet in all its ramifications globally. It is entirely in the interest of operators, technology developers and national governments to remedy this situation with all haste.