Siân Herbert
Publication Date
November 30, 2017

University of Birmingham

"How does digital development change pathways to development for women and girls? What are the economic, social and political risks and opportunities?"

Prepared for the United Kingdom (UK) Government's Department for International Development (DFID), this rapid literature review collates findings from recently published papers on digital development and gender, highlighting some discussions related to economic, social, and political development. It is offered in the context of "the digital inclusion agenda", which seeks to close the gaps in access to, and adoption of, information and communication technology (ICT), particularly mobile phones and the internet. It is an important aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as both an end and a means to the cross-cutting policy aim of "leaving no one behind".

Some of the key messages emerging in the literature include:

  • A new "digital economy" (or information economy) has emerged as digital technologies have increased the amount of information available, with increasing ease of access and reducing costs of access. Digitalisation is transforming economic activities with new industries, technologies, ways of working, and networks.
  • The potential gains from digital technologies are high, yet the impact is mixed and uneven and therefore often unrealised.
  • The extent and speed of digital development is unequal and is contributing to unequal development trajectories. This suggests that digital development is not only disrupting development pathways but is also a continuation of traditional development challenges and divides. The nature of these gender divides is rooted in structural gender inequalities, and more research is needed to understand it in its specific contexts.
  • Digital technologies promote development by three mechanisms: inclusion, efficiency and innovation (World Bank, 2016.

The rapid review of the literature identified five key areas of digital development within the broad remit of economic, social, and political development that pose particular opportunities and risks for digital inclusion of women and girls:

  1. Jobs and employment - Digital technologies can reduce gender gaps in labour force participation by making work arrangements more flexible, connecting people to work, and generating new opportunities - e.g., in online work, e-commerce, and the gig economy. The latter is an environment in which temporary positions are common, and organisations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. While this economy has improved flexibility for both workers and employers, the work is often low-paid, insecure, and ad hoc, especially for less-skilled workers and marginalised/discriminated groups.
  2. Service delivery - Mobile and digital solutions can facilitate greater financial inclusion for small firms and individuals. Compared to men, women entrepreneurs in developing economies tend to be disadvantaged in terms of: accessing finance, time constraints, mobility, and access to skills and training. E-commerce and digital solutions can help overcome some of these barriers.
  3. Social norms and values - Social norms influence women's access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men. Furthermore, digital technologies and spaces to use them are gendered.
  4. E-governance and online participation - The literature identifies opportunities for gender-responsive e-government services in addressing the gender digital development gap and supporting empowerment, as it can: facilitate the development and sharing of relevant content (e.g., health information); create "safe" online discussion spaces; support women to challenge traditional norms and build peer connections and confidence to participate in the labour market; and foster digital skills development and education. A broad criticism highlighted throughout the literature is that most ICT for development (ICT4D) projects still do not integrate gender analysis in a meaningful way, and as a result fail to address the needs of the recipients.
  5. Skills and education - Throughout the literature, it is emphasised that while access to the internet is critical, it is not sufficient for improving digital development and inclusion of marginalised groups.

Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) website, January 8 2018. Image caption/credit: Girls in an Afghanistan school are taught how to use computers. Todd Huffman