Why men control the internet
18 November 2014, 08:19
Cape Town - Men are ruling the digital world - creating a more sexist arena online than we face in the real world, industry leaders have claimed.
At a summit for GSMA, an umbrella group representing mobile operators worldwide, experts warned that the imbalance kicked off in the 1980s - after adverts showing middle-class white men as proud owners of ‘home PCs’ flooded the market.
Wiki for men
“Computers were seen as a tool for men,” said Priya Jaisinghani, acting director for the Centre for Global Solutions at the US Global Development Lab for USAID.
“As soon as home computers got into the market, women stopped studying computer science,” she added. The drop in female students has seen the domination today of men across the online world of coding, design and content.
Men write 85% of Wikipedia articles, for example, Jaisinghani pointed out.
Men hold 97-98% of senior management positions in the technology industry - even though women account for 40% of the global workforce and more than half of university graduates, according to GSMA director general Anne Bouverot.
‘Geeky’ cliche overdone
The job opportunities for women are there - plus women in the tech sector earn up to 9% more than their counterparts in other sectors - but young women aren’t going for these jobs, Bouverot said.
She claims that young girls have put off by the image of “geeky young men working in their garages, coding all day”.
It’s a misleading picture of the range of careers on offer, and it has led to an online world that is dominated by male workers who are creating a “skewed” digital world, Jaisinghani said.
She warned: “We risk magnifying the same inequalities in the physical as in the digital world that we are creating”.
A sexist digital world is also harmful to the economy in the real world, Bouverot pointed out. Landmark research completed in 2009 by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that women control as much as 70% of household purchases and $20 trillion of consumer spending worldwide.
In 2013, BCG said it expects that spending to rise by a further $5 trillion in the next five years, giving the fairer sex “greater commercial potential than the rise of the consumer economies of India and China”.
But the group said companies are “still struggling” with how to meet that potential - providing services and products that meet women’s needs.
Mobile phones are the most ubiquitous modern device that provides internet access, and yet according to research by GSMA, almost 70% of mobile phone groups have no idea how many female customers they have.
Yet one group, Asiacell in Iraq, proved how worthwhile the analysis is. Bouverot’s “favourite example”, Asiacell’s female customer base grew from 20% to 40% within three years after it launched a line of products and services specifically designed for women.
It also made a point of employing women in its sales and customer support divisions, creating jobs for women at the same time.
United Nations’ research finds that while there is only a “small gap” between the number of men and women with access to the internet in the developed world, the gap widens “rapidly” in the developing world.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates that only half the number of women are as connected as men. Women are on average 21% less likely to own a mobile phone - which means the mobile sector is missing out on a potential $13bn extra revenue, according to the UN.
For Bouverot it’s a no-brainer. “Women underpin the development of all economies,” she said.
Sylvia Mulinge, general manager of Kenya’s leading mobile operator Safaricom, said it wasn’t simply about connecting people to their friends.
“We can use mobiles to provide education, health information, financing and insurance,” she said. “In Africa there are more mobiles than there are toilets - more people in Kenya have mobile phones than access to a bank account.”
There are a host of advantages to connecting women in developing countries, but these are met with barriers.
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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s Dr Vijayalakshmy Gupta said that in India, along with other developing nations, poor technology skills, literacy and numeracy, cost and access to power hampers the spread of mobile ownership for women.
She added: “Culturally, men know that what empowers women is also a threat to them”.
India is one of the most challenging areas in the roll out of women’s access to mobiles, according to GSMA.
But for USAID’s Christopher Burns, acting director of digital development at the US Global Development Lab, digital inclusion comes back to the creators of the online world.
Burns said that governments should shift their focus from supplying access for women, to looking more at demand - and building a service toward the needs of women.
He said: “You can have the network, the device, the knowledge etcetera, but none of it really matters if the content is not really relevant to that person. More needs to be done... It’s about creating content that speaks to their [women’s] lives.”