Understanding the Gender Digital Divide: Social Norms and the USAID WomenConnect Challenge

14 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2018 Last revised: 23 Aug 2018

See all articles by Thomas Koutsky

Thomas Koutsky

USAID Global Development Lab

Revi Sterling


Date Written: March 16, 2018


Over 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not access or use mobile, digital and internet technologies and remain entirely disconnected from the opportunities to grow and enrich their lives. Research has shown that there are several reasons for gender divides in ICT use — ranging from economic challenges, education and literacy gaps, and social norms that ostracize and even punish women from using technology for empowerment. There have been thousands of attempts, from tech companies, to non-profits, to large international development agencies to solve the gender digital divide. But these interventions — such as digital literacy programs and computer camps — are often conducted in a vacuum without fully understanding and addressing the highly-contextualized social barriers to women’s use of ICT. Lives are not changed in the long run, and technology fails again to deliver on its promise to revolutionize development by providing actionable and timely information to those who have been left out of the information society. Restrictive gender norms may prohibit women from using mobile phones, but for different reasons in different communities. While two decades of research confirm the persistent presence of these barriers, the underlying causes of these barriers are frequently local and community-based. In nearly all countries, data on specific barriers to ICT adoption and use disaggregated by gender, geography, and other demographic factors is virtually absent. As a result, it is difficult for existing gender digital divide research to identify solutions that can be sufficiently tailored yet also scalable. This paper will bridge this research gap by utilizing a new and unique dataset, generated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of its new WomenConnect Challenge. On March 8, 2018, USAID released a call for proposals from around the world that deliberately seeks out comprehensive solutions to the highly contextualized, social barriers to women’s access and usage of digital technology. The proposed paper will use all stage one applications for funding from USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge to identify, classify, and correlate societal barriers across diverse geographies and cultural norms identified by the applicants. Hundreds of applications for funding are expected from around the world, and USAID is requiring applicants to identify barriers to ICT adoption and the specific target groups of their proposed solution. We will catalog these applications by geography and barriers, and study their frequency, scale, and impact compared to a variety of socio-economic variables and conditions. We believe that the diverse applications for funding themselves can reveal a great deal about the nature, type, and extent of certain categories of barriers to ICT adoption by women that are present in communities worldwide. These findings can then support recommendations for specific interventions that can scale and sustain women’s access and use of ICT. This USAID WomenConnect Challenge application dataset collected by the authors will be proprietary until we publish it at project completion. The proposed paper will be a unique contribution to the intersecting fields of ICT, policy, international development and gender. There has not been a similar attempt to classify and study global barriers to ICT by women with local and regional variables.

Keywords: broadband, gender, ICT adoption, USAID, development

Suggested Citation

Koutsky, Thomas M. and Sterling, Revi, Understanding the Gender Digital Divide: Social Norms and the USAID WomenConnect Challenge (March 16, 2018). TPRC 46: The 46th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3142049

Thomas M. Koutsky (Contact Author)

USAID Global Development Lab ( email )

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20577
United States

Revi Sterling

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

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