Digital gender gap prompts $1tn GDP loss for developing countries

Low and lower-middle income countries across the world have lost an estimated $1tn in gross domestic product (GDP) in the past decade, as women are disproportionately excluded from the digital economy, new research has found.

According to research carried out by the World Wide Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), men are 21% more likely to be able to access the internet than women, with the percentage rising to 52% in the least developed nations. The situation has seen a minimal improvement since 2011, as the digital gender gap dropped just half a percentage point from 30.9% to 30.4%.

The Web Foundation’s study estimates that in 2020 alone, the digital gender gap cost a total of $126bn to the 32 countries studied, which include nations such as Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. Moreover, these economies saw a combined $24bn in lost tax revenues in 2020, which could have gone towards other areas of economic development.

The study cites figures from the International Telecommunications Union to illustrate the gravity of the issue: the ITU study from 2019 estimates that 55% of men in the world had used the internet while only 48% of women had that year, the equivalent of 303 million people globally.

“Closing the digital gender gap is not just a moral cause, it is also an economic imperative,” said Catherine Adeya, director of research at the Web Foundation.

“As the internet becomes a more potent enabler for education, business and community mobilisation, a failure to deliver access for all means failing to realise everyone’s potential to contribute,” she said, adding that governments working on addressing the issue “will unlock a wealth of creativity and productivity”.

The research also underlines the economic opportunity governments have to include women in a fully inclusive digital economy. It estimates that closing the digital gender gap could present a significant growth opportunity, by adding an estimated $524bn in economic activity over the next five years to the countries studied.

However, the Web Foundation report also pointed out that governments are slow to address the issue: the study cites findings from A4AI’s research from 2020, which found that over 40% of developing countries had no meaningful policies or programmes to expand women’s access to the internet.

More progress is needed around the creation of policies specifically aimed at the barriers associated with the digital gender gap, the report noted. These include the affordability of data and devices, gaps in education and digital skills, and social pressures discouraging women from using the internet, as well as fears about privacy, safety and security online.

Recommendations of potential approaches to closing the digital gender gap, including a holistic view of the hurdles women and girls face around accessing the web, are also cited in the report. These include infrastructure investment, transparent policy targets, and programmes to deliver digital skills and literacy training, as well as initiatives aimed at addressing privacy and safety concerns.

Despite the current scenario, the report predicts that the digital gender gap will narrow: over the next five years, 46.8 million women will gain online access, compared with 45.7 million men. This would result in a reduction of the digital gender gap in these countries from 30.4% to 20.6% by 2025, with a less severe loss of GDP than what is currently estimated. However, the the cost of exclusion will remain high, at an estimated $99bn by 2025.