In 2016, the IT industry had a revenue of US$143 bn with a 9.3% share in GDP and >45% share in services exports. Currently, women employees form more than 34% of its workforce (Nasscom SR 2015). With the creation of more than 3100 startups in recent times, there has been a significant rise in number of women entrepreneurs with 6% of startups having women founders (Nasscom SR 2015).
ICT forces have the potential to bring benefits to all, but most importantly it can be a tool for economic empowerment of women in rural areas and women from a lower socioeconomic strata of society. This has been demonstrated by projects as SEWA, Datamation India, and IKuppam which have combined the power of ICT to wield positive benefits on women’s’ health and development (Redkar & Kumar). Further, project such Kudumshree in Kerala demonstrate that Self-help groups can use ICT for poverty eradication through economic empowerment of poor women (Prasad,P.N. and Sreedevi,V. 2007).
These projects shed light on the digital divide currently prevailing in the country and the unequal access to new technology existing between different groups- may it be on the basis of gender, caste, or rural vs. urban setting.
The article aims to delineate the various factors contributing to the gender digital divide, and hopes to suggest policy recommendations that could help mitigate the issue.
Women and access to ICT
In 2016, India ranked low at 138 in the ICT development index, as compared to its global contemporaries. In Oct 2015, there were 71% male users as compared to 29% female users. In urban areas, male internet users were 68% compared to 32% women. In rural areas, the figure was 12 % for females compared to 88% males (Statista 2017). It is reported that of the total 191 million Facebook users in India, only 24% are female (Subramanium 2017). It is seen that 43% of Indian men own a cellphone compared to only 28% women. (Urvashi and Aneja, 2017 )
Reasons leading to status of unequal access to ICT
Several factors lead to unequal access of ICT.
1. Lack of access to basic education and literacy are the prime reasons affecting women’s access to IT.
In India, literacy levels are relatively low. As per 2011 census, literacy levels in India are currently 74.4%, male literacy levels being 82 % while female literacy levels are just 65%.
Average years of schooling are an aggregate measure of educational stock of a country. India’s average year of schooling in 2013 for adults was just 4.4 years. In 2013, gross secondary enrollment rate was 71%, while gross tertiary enrollment rate was only 25%. For women, the figure was even lower. At secondary levels, enrolment ratio for women is 60.4% in 2010, while enrolment at tertiary level is just 14.9%. As less women are enrolled in higher education, their access to ICT employment is limited.
2. Access to IT is only limited to distinct classes of people. Specialised education for IT is out of reach for poor women and restricted to mainly urban centres. Additionally, access is hindered by the fact that education and training is highly skewed towards English speaking masses and varies according to different classes (Shanker 2008, Upadhay 2006, COD 2004).
3. Location of IT industry in certain specific areas as big cities with a lesser reach in rural, or lesser developed areas.
4. Lack of mobility is cited as one of the major constraints to participate in IT workforce in India. As this industry is located in specific centres, it is inaccessible for people who are not able to migrate to these areas. Currently, there are very few IT job opportunities in many of the northern states, especially outside New Delhi.
6. The content of ICT is not always in vernacular language which may prove to be a barrier for women who are not well versed in english language content. A large number of women may not have access to ICT due to these language barriers
7. Apart from employment in ICT, access to ICT is hampered due to financial constraints. A study by google reported that less women had mobile handsets due to poverty. Cost of smartphones was seen as the biggest barrier stopping rural women from accessing the internet (Ahuja 2017).
8. Patriarchal mindset of people– There have been diktats by certain khap panchayat that women should not be allowed to use the cell phone as it may have a bad influence on them. These social attitudes as restrict women’s access to ICT (Urvasi and Aneja 2017, Kujat 2015, Subramanium 2017).
Policy recommendations to improve access to IT
ICT content should be developed in local languages to facilitate easier adoption. Women of lower strata of society may not be able to buy high end mobiles, and hence there could be concessions provided to enable their purchase of mobiles. There is a dire need to spread word about positive benefits through mobile and its applications to women. NGOs need to take this task. This will help reduce apprehensions among certain groups of people who think that their daughters should not use mobile phones. Special training programmes should be organised for women for usage of mobiles. It is seen that some women knowledge of mobiles is limited to just accessing a green button. Separate spaces should be provided to women to use cyberspace and training centres.
Companies should use this opportunity to focus on programs that spread ICT awareness among different socioeconomic strata of women. For example, Google has launched a program for training women in rural areas (ET, 2016), similarly other companies could take this step.
On a macro level, efforts should be made to spread education. The process should start from primary education. There should be more schemes and incentives for promoting higher education among women as well. Adequate training may be given to new recruits in terms of English speaking skills. All companies employing women could provide facilities as transport, canteens and crèches for working mothers. They should have separate mentoring teams.
Policies should be framed to make it mandatory that women constitute one third of resources in all companies, large or small. More hostels should be constructed for working women in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities by the government. Non-governmental agencies can also be instrumental in these activities. Creating awareness about women’s safety and their rights can also be done on by societal groups. Implementation of gender inclusivity policies will go a long way in tapping more women workers and reduce attrition rates.