"Closing the digital divide between girls and boys is about more than just having access to the internet and technology. It's about empowering girls to become innovators, creators, and leaders," said UNICEF Director of Education Robert Jenkins. "If we want to tackle gender gaps in the labour market, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, we must start now by helping young people, especially girls, gain digital skills."
|Tan Thanh Hien (left) 11 years old and her friend Tan Thi Hang (right) 11 years old, were trying the AR technology on the tablet supported by UNICEF at Bat Xat secondary high school in Lao Cai. (Photo: UNICEF)
The report – Bridging the Digital Divide: Challenges and an Urgent Call for Action for Equitable Digital Skills Development – takes a close look at the gender digital divide among young people aged 15-24 years by analysing available data on internet use, mobile phone ownership, and digital skills in mostly low-, lower-middle-, and some middle-income economies. Though more gender-disaggregated data is needed to better monitor, understand, and work toward digital inclusion, the report finds that girls are being left behind in an increasingly digital and connected world.
While advancing access to the internet is important, it is insufficient for digital skills training. For example, in most countries analysed, the share of youth with access to the internet at home is much higher than that of youth with digital skills.
Only in Viet Nam and Mongolia is gender parity observed in both foundation reading skills and digital skills, where gender parity is observed in the analyzed age cohorts. This indicates that in these countries, both girls and boys aged 7-14 are acquiring foundational reading skills at similar rates, and adolescent girls and boys, as well as young men and women aged 15-24, are acquiring basic digital skills at comparable rates.
However, achieving gender parity does not necessarily imply that the skills are prevalent across the population. For instance, in Viet Nam, while 83% of 7-14-year-olds have acquired foundational reading skills, only about 36% of 15-24-year-olds have acquired basic digital skills. Thus, although parity has been achieved, there is still a long way to go before all youth acquire the necessary skills for employment and higher earnings.
Globally, girls are the least likely to have the opportunities to develop the skills needed for 21st-century learning and employment, according to the report. On average across 32 countries and territories, girls are 35 per cent less likely than their male peers to have digital skills, including simple activities like copying or pasting files or folders, sending emails, or transferring files.
The root barriers are far deeper than a lack of access to the internet, according to the report. The findings suggest that educational and family environments play a critical role in the gender digital divide. For example, even within the same home, girls are far less likely than boys to access and be able to make full use of the internet and digital technologies. Among 41 countries and territories included in the analysis, households are much more likely to provide mobile phones for boys than girls. Meanwhile, most educators do not factor gender and promotion of girls’ advancement in digital literacy education, further hindering development for girls.
Barriers to accessing opportunities to higher learning and the labour market, pervasive discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes, and concerns over online safety may further restrict girls' digital inclusion and skills development.
The report also argues that even when girls have equitable access to gain foundational reading and math skills – and perform on par or better than their male peers – it does not always translate to digital skills. To break the barriers holding girls back, they need early exposure and access to technology, digital and life skills training, and efforts that address harmful gender stereotypes, especially within families, and online violence. Also, only by applying gender-transformative teaching approaches, can barriers towards girls advancement in STEM be broken down, ensuring equal access for all students.
UNICEF is calling on governments and partners to close the gender divide and ensure that girls have the opportunities to succeed in a digital world. Some of the recommendations include: Teach digital skills equally to girls and boys in and out of school, including community programmes and ensure digital literacy is taught from the pre-school and onward; Protect girls' safety online through virtual safe spaces, policies and laws, and education; Promote girls' access to peer learning, mentoring, internships and job shadowing in the digital/STEM world./.