Breaking through the Gender Digital Divide: Technology, Social Norms, and the WomenConnect Challenge

20 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2020

Date Written: December 15, 2020


In 2018, we introduced the TPRC community to USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, a project designed to identify effective solutions to the gender digital divide in developing countries. Now, in 2020, the original set of WomenConnect projects we introduced have completed and yielded a range of effective practices to bridge the gender divide – as well as new challenges not foreseen in project development. While some positive traction has been made in closing the gender gap, internet access remains out of range for over two billion women, and some studies show that the gender gap is increasing. Given the trend of international development sectors to embrace digital development strategies, this gap is now all the more critical to close. We have known for decades that women are the key to sustainable health, education, and livelihoods in their communities; now we are inadvertently making it more difficult for women to access the very information they need for development by going digital.

We are not going to turn back the wave of digital development – there are too many promises afforded by the potential scale and reach, and too much momentum from industry and donor communities. What we can do as technologists and policymakers is spark new interest in an old topic – the gender digital divide – by recommending approaches that are far more effective than typical digital literacy courses and trainings that offer little impact and provide even smaller returns on investment. If women lack the confidence to even interact with technology; if they live under restrictive social norms that prohibit technology use, and if there are no tangible socioeconomic benefits from internet access, then this gap will never close.

The WomenConnect Challenge is the largest U.S. government research project dedicated to identifying, funding, and scaling solutions to the gender digital divide. Phase 1 was grounded in participatory action research and focused on creating compelling cases for women’s technology ownership and use. Pilot projects reflected local contexts and demonstrate a set of effective practices that would be more efficient and effective in addressing this critical gender gap. While these case studies have informed additional multimillion-dollar commitments from the U.S. Government and private sector, they are starting points for re-engaging with a divide that must be closed in order for digital development writ large to be effective, while advancing policy discussions and changes that can institutionalize solutions that work.

Keywords: gender digital divide, broadband, internet access, gender studies, digital divide, ICT for Development, digital development

Suggested Citation

Sterling, Revi and Grubbs, Lauren and Koutsky, Thomas M., Breaking through the Gender Digital Divide: Technology, Social Norms, and the WomenConnect Challenge (December 15, 2020). TPRC48: The 48th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy, Available at SSRN: or

Revi Sterling (Contact Author)

DAI ( email )

Washington, DC

Lauren Grubbs

USAID ( email )

Washington, DC
United States

Thomas M. Koutsky

USAID Global Development Lab ( email )

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20577
United States

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