The recent International Telecommunication Union’s Girls in ICT day reminds us of a crucial issue facing digital leaders around the world – the extent to which women lag behind men in internet use and access, and the lost economic, social and educational opportunities this disparity represents.

This digital gender gap is well documented. Globally, 1.7 billion girls and women do not own a mobile phone today. In South Asia, where VimpelCom owns operating companies in Pakistan and Bangladesh, 38% fewer women than men own mobile phones, and in Pakistan specifically, only 9% of women own smartphones compared to 22% of men. The fact that 95% of jobs now have a digital component reinforces the urgency of the issue.

Closing the digital gender gap is crucial if we are really serious about “connecting the next billion,” or as some advocate, “connecting everyone.”

Gender gap in mobile phone ownership by region
Image: GSMA Connected Women

Cultural barriers, not just physical ones

A key point that Girls in ICT Day underscores is that the challenge of connecting everyone is not primarily a matter of overcoming the physical barriers to reaching people in inaccessible places. It’s at least as much about surmounting cultural barriers and skewed financial priorities that make it difficult for women to access the digital world, even where its benefits are already available.

Last year’s Connected Women report from the GSMA indicated that women are less likely to be financially independent in societies where the digital gender gap is wide, often disproportionately lack literacy and technical skills, and in some cases are actively discouraged from using the internet or purchasing devices by family or community elders.

One commonly cited cultural barrier is that many women consider the internet to be a hostile environment. A report last year by the World Wide Web Foundation said “women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive, often sexualized hate speech, direct threats of violence, harassment, and revenge porn involving use of personal/private information for defamation.” It adds, “In 74% of Web Index countries, including many high-income nations, law enforcement agencies and the courts are failing to take appropriate actions in situations where web-enabled ICTs are used to commit acts of gender-based violence.”

The vital role of operators and digital players

While we have long been involved in supporting women’s digital empowerment and education, such as with our SMS-based literacy program in Pakistan, the developing understanding of the digital gender gap in emerging markets raises the possibility of a broader approach, particularly if operators and internet companies pull together.

In the emerging markets, there are a limited number of substantial players who are capable of quickly driving social change. Mobile operators, with our nationwide networks and deep marketing and advertising reach; and digital players, with their active and well-distributed user bases, are uniquely positioned to reach the entire population.

We can identify existing services which can address their economic, educational and social needs. We can highlight role models who have used our services to gain new knowledge, better careers, and greater economic stability. We can showcase leaders – male and female, secular and religious – and amplify their support for universal digital empowerment. We can develop attractive propositions that support digital take-up in entire families. We can agitate for better laws and higher standards for internet content and user security.

With our reach and our on-the-ground presence, we can act locally and nationally. Crucially, we can use our strength to reach out to men – demonstrating that digitally empowering women and girls will improve their own quality of lives, and, where needed, identifying how they can best help.

With the GSMA estimating that the global closure of the digital gender gap represents a cumulative USD 170 billion opportunity for the industry, the opportunity for all of us is massive, commercially and socially. Not only will women and girls benefit, pursuing this goal will benefit us all – with more people living to their potential, and a global conversation that includes and reflects the voices of women and girls more fully.

Originally published at VimpelCom Blog