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USAID model to revert curve of digital exclusion of middle-aged women in SA

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Picture: Maxim Shipenkovepa/EPA-EFE. Today now to date, the global community has continued to invest in programmes that increase the women’s workforce by advancing women’s digital skills.

Tinuade Adekunbi Ojo

Following the world economic forum’s report on the gender gap in 2022, it will take more than 132 years to reach gender parity in the global economy.

The current statistics of gender parity show 68 percent compliance this year, an increase from last year’s report, 67.9 percent. The most important sector for gender inequality is the gender digital divide which continues to be an issue of concern.

To date, the global community has continued to invest in programmes that increase the women’s workforce by advancing women’s digital skills. The establishment of ICTs would further enhance women’s digital skills and encourage and facilitate women’s participation in both ICT and ICT-related employment. This paper highlights the gender inclusion indicators for middle-aged women in the US and South Africa.

The aim is to present the different gender ICT indicators and shared approaches both governments use to foster inclusion. Barriers such as inaccessibility, poverty, educational and technological illiteracy, gender biases and socio-cultural norms are factors causing digital exclusion.

In the United States, gender equality and the advancement of women and girls are the core foundation of the country’s three pillars of foreign policy: diplomacy, development, and defence.

A report presented by B2B News Finance Online stated that despite 47 percent of women occupying the US labour force, there is still a gender gap in the ICT sector.

Currently, there are only 14.1 percent white, 9.6 percent Asian, 2.2 percent Black and 1.7 percent Latin American women in ICT. On the other hand, South African women only occupy 5 percent of ICT industrial senior manager positions, indicative of a rise in under-representation. It has also been documented that only 2.9 percent out of 22 percent of female ICT graduates are employed.

This, in turn, has further exacerbated the gender divide, which will further widen in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) era unless appropriate and significant measures are adopted to sustain digital policies relating to gender. The 4IR has significantly revealed a considerable rise in inequality in South Africa.

This has primarily been evident among low-income and unskilled citizens, of whom a majority are made up of women and girls. What’s more, digital gender exclusion in South Africa has further been confirmed through the existence of digital illiteracy, the stereotyping of gender, discrimination and the inaccessibility to data.

In line with those mentioned above, the digital divide has continued to be an ongoing concern for decades, yet its realities are present even in the contemporary world of politics.

Table 1 explains gender inclusion in the United States and South Africa on ICT applications.

Source: Digital 2022: US / Digital 2022: South Africa

From the table, both countries have strived to reach gender parity in digital inclusion for women. However, as one of the global leaders in digital inclusion, the US has almost 100 percent internet access for its populace, with a 94 percent digital penetration for males and 93 percent for females.

South Africa is a far cry from this, with 51 percent access for females and 55 percent for males. Regarding social media access, in both countries, women have a higher percentage than the male population, except for LinkedIn. This still shows the gender gap in economic development.

Irrespective of South Africa’s boast of sophisticated institutions, vital private sectors and progressive policies, it continues to lag behind concerning the indicators for access to digital participation and ICTs.

For women to be truly empowered, various policies need to be established to tackle negative perceptions and socio-cultural attitudes along with additional factors such as women’s lack of political representation, inequality related to access to health services and violence against women.

Ongoing research reveals that middle-aged women are significantly excluded from digital access. The majority of the poor and marginalised women between the ages of 30 and 50 years, who are digital illiterates, have found it difficult to adjust to the sudden shift to the use of transactional technology, which has occurred in the global sphere due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study involved a focus group discussion with 20 rural middle-aged women (30-50 years) in Gauteng, South Africa. The findings discovered that women do not know how to operate digital devices or access technology/ICT.

As a result, their economic prospects have been undermined. This age margin is the most impacted by the pandemic, with massive job losses leading to a considerable gender gap in economic empowerment.

Both in US and SA, some women lost their jobs while some were forced to resign due to household responsibilities. Others could not cope with the new civilisation in digital space, dropping out of the qualification cadre. Hence many women were left behind in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

A signed statement from one of the participants resonated with the women’s state of mind:

We do not understand all these technologies; they ask us to go online for free training, but how do I access an online programme if I do not know how to access the programme or have the correct application or mobile to access such training.

The statement made by the participant affirms the WEC report that only 30 percent of women engage in online training as compared to men’s 70 percent. As a result, the gender gap for digital inclusion keeps getting wider, and women’s lack of access to economic participation limits the attainment of achieving human security and more sustainable societies.

If women are empowered, it aids economic growth that alleviates poverty and foster stable communities. Discussions at the recent gathering of the women’s economic forum, which I had the opportunity to attend, also affirm the gender gap between the poor and marginalised middle age women and their elite counterparts.

Many African delegates raised the issue for debate and advocated that commonwealth nations address this significant challenge that has been overlooked for a long time.

In light of the foregoing, one can see that both the US and SA have attempted to establish policies that would promote the increase in women’s access to the digital world. Both countries have further invested a tremendous amount of focus, showing a growing acknowledgement of the issue. What’s most important to take note of by other countries seeking to improve women’s access to the digital world is the need to address the historical perception of inclusion, especially in the 21st century, as well as tackle societal issues such as inequality related to access to education, health services and violence against women.

To promote access to ICTs by women, USAID has adopted some actions and initiatives including:

– Provision of evidence-based research to reduce the gender gap in digital inclusion.

– Investing and Developing projects, tools and training to close the gender digital divide.

– Embrace social norms (on sex, gender identity, age and sexual orientation) from diverse identities to promote inclusion.

– Implement several approaches to collect data on the gender digital divide.

South Africa, on its part, also implements initiatives such as:

– Establishing adequate investment for ICT infrastructure, such as fibre optics.

– Providing licence for broadband spectrum for economic reform packages.

– Redressing policies on digital inclusion

– Developing infrastructures for science and technology in the country.

In working with the USAID Digital Strategy, the US government has overcome barriers to women’s access and strengthened an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem within the country.

Since South Africa intends to take advantage of opportunities offered in the new global technological shift and enhance global competitiveness, the government must implement intentional strategies that foster digital inclusion. Developing economies can also embrace the following Strategies established by USAID:

– Amending Societal Norms and Cultural Belief Systems within the country on digital inclusion

– Generating Economic Opportunities that improve women’s confidence

– Designing Creative Women-Centric Technology

– Developing Community Support

Tinuade Adekunbi Ojo is the Head of Unit at the Pan African Women Studies at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) and a Senior Research Fellow/academic at the 4IR Digital Policy Studies (4DPRU) Unit at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.