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Gender inequality online costs governments $1 trillion, says web inventor's foundation

Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation hopes governments will be spurred to act after learning about the economic cost of the digital gender divide.

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Women are less likely than men to have access to the internet in low- and middle-income countries, such as India.

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This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

When women and girls don't have access to the internet, it costs governments a lot of money. How much money, exactly, has only been estimated, until now. 

New research released Monday by Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation and its subsidiary, Alliance for Affordable Internet, has calculated that over the past 10 years, 32 low- and middle-income countries have lost $1 trillion by not helping more women get online. Those countries include India, Nigeria and the Philippines.

The digital divide is a global problem, but there are still distinct groups that are less likely to have access to the internet. These groups can be defined by their geography, their gender, their race or all three. Women in low- and middle-income countries are even less likely to have internet access than their male counterparts.

"This report reveals just how expensive gender inequality is for all of us," Boutheina Guermazi, director of digital development for the World Bank, said in a statement. "For governments looking to build a resilient economy as part of their COVID-19 recovery plans, closing the digital gender gap should be one of the top priorities."

In the 32 countries the Web Foundation looked at in its report, just over a third of women had access to the internet, compared with almost half of all men. And this divide doesn't seem to be closing over time, even as digital connectivity plays an increasingly central role in our lives. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how vital it is to have access to internet at home, for everything from remote school to health care. Over the past decade, the gap between the number of women and men online has dropped by only half a percentage point, the Web Foundation's research says.

The lack of internet access for women means many are excluded from education and employment opportunities, which often keeps them in poverty or other dangerous situations, without access to health care or other assistance. That alone should be enough for governments to want to try to close that gender divide, but that hasn't always been the case.

Inclusive broadband policies for economic gains

With its new report, the Web Foundation is laying out the cost of the digital gender divide in stark economic terms, in the hope it'll be the push that governments need to take the problem seriously. According to the report's calculations, closing the digital gender gap in the next five years could help generate an enticing $524 billion for the economies of the countries studied.

"It is not just good social policy, but it's also good economics ... to include women and girls in the online world," Teddy Woodhouse, the Web Foundation's senior research manager for access and affordability, said in an interview. For him, the big test of the report will be whether the information awakens new allies and helps move the needle in closing the digital gender gap. "It's really trying to be quite practical and thinking about how can we build a case for change," he said.

Focusing on the broad financial implications is also a way to ensure that the digital gender divide isn't dismissed by those in power, as gender equality debates so often are, added Ana María Rodríguez Pulgarín, one of the report's co-authors.

"Sometimes our gender discussions are with politicians that are already working on gender equality, closing the digital gender divide and all that," she said. "But I think we want to bring the message that this will affect everyone."

One of the main problems identified in the research as holding women back from getting on the internet is a lack of gender-responsive broadband policy -- explicit targets for ensuring women have internet access. 

Governments interested in narrowing the digital gender divide have a number of areas to choose from where they implement policy, including rights, education, access and content. Woodhouse pointed to Costa Rica as an example of a country that has implemented such measures by specifically setting targets for getting more women into STEM.

Every year Costa Rica publishes a report on how it's meeting the targets. "That's only possible if you're setting those indicators in the first place," said Woodhouse. It's an example of how creating systems of accountability can be best practice.

Internet access beyond the binary

The Web Foundation's research on gender has focused on traditional male-female lines and doesn't incorporate the experiences of trans or nonbinary citizens. The "crucial problem" with expanding the research, Woodhouse said, is data availability. Even getting data that's been broken down enough to show the discrepancy between the experience of cisgender men and women (people whose personal identity and gender correspond with their birth sex) has been challenging, he added.

"To then get data that is disaggregated even more comprehensively, is essentially nonexistent in most contexts, and particularly in the economic context we're looking at of low- and middle-income countries," he said. In some countries, being transgender is illegal and punishable by jail time or other serious measures, making the tracking of different genders impossible.  

The lack of data is something Woodhouse hopes will change. But, he added, the overall goal of the research remains the same. 

The aim is that we will "see less of the idea that gender should predetermine what rights someone should have, what kind of experiences they should have, what kind of access to the internet," Woodhouse said. "That's going to be a net benefit for everyone."