Gender Inequality

To educate and empower women, we must close the digital divide

Online education surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence from Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria showed that closing the digital divide will improve education and earnings potential for billions of women worldwide.

Online education surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence from Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria showed that closing the digital divide will improve education and earnings potential for billions of women worldwide. Image: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Makhtar Diop
Managing Director, International Finance Corporation
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Gender Inequality

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  • Women in the least developed countries are half as likely to be online as men, curtailing their chance to learn online and improve their lives.
  • The digital divide hurts women and costs the world billions of dollars in GDP every year.
  • A concerted effort by the public and private sectors can see this trend reversed, allowing women worldwide to live up to their potential.

The digital divide hurts women the most. Women disproportionately find themselves unable to access modern innovations that can improve their lives — among them digital education.

But when women are provided equal access to digital services, amazing things can happen.

Take Confidence, a young data analyst from Nigeria. Struggling to find work as the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, she turned to online learning platform Coursera. Confidence soon completed a Genomic Data Science Specialization with Johns Hopkins University and a professional certification in Google Data Analytics.

Her investment paid off. Confidence's new skills helped her land a job, ending a two-year stretch of unemployment.

Stories like Confidence’s demonstrate the transformative power of online education, which grew exponentially during the pandemic.

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Online education in developing countries

Nowhere is the potential higher than in developing countries. Young populations, fewer existing educational opportunities and increasing connectivity have set the stage for explosive growth in these parts of the world. In fact, IFC estimates that the market for adult online learning in emerging markets alone will more than double within the next five years.

This potential growth comes with significant benefits for both individuals and developing economies. A recent study by IFC, developed in partnership with Coursera and the European Commission, found nearly half of online learners in Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria who took to digital education to start or grow their business succeeded in their efforts. Nearly 40 percent reported improved career opportunities or income increases.

But fully realizing these benefits isn’t a given — stories like Confidence’s are, unfortunately, not the norm.

The online learning paradox

There’s a paradox at the heart of online learning: the people who are most likely to benefit from it are also the least likely to have access to it. This is especially true for women, who are being disproportionately affected by the digital divide.

Globally, women are 21 percent less likely to be online compared to men; in the least developed countries, they’re half as likely. This digital exclusion does more than prevent women from accessing online education. It prevents them from fully participating in the digital economy — and it is costing the world billions of dollars in GDP each year.

How should we go about solving this online learning paradox? Closing the digital inclusion gap will require a multi-pronged approach and close alignment between the public and private sectors.

Digital divide: the people who are most likely to benefit from online education are also the least likely to have access to it.
Digital divide: the people who are most likely to benefit from online education are also the least likely to have access to it. Image: UN

Bridging the digital divide

First, we need to broadly invest in digital infrastructure that increases connectivity and ensures everyone — including women — can fully access the digital economy. Last year, IFC exceeded $1 billion in commitments to the telecom sector for the first time, with three-quarters of those investments going to Africa. Targeted funding pools like this and blended finance can catalyze the deployment of private capital at every level of the digital ecosystem, from broadband and datacenters to independent tower and mobile network operators.

But infrastructure alone isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide. We must also ensure digital products are relevant and affordable for women. Service and device costs remain one of the primary barriers standing between women and access to digital technologies.

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Affordability can also influence if and how women use digital services. IFC research found that free or audited courses are the single biggest entry point to online learning, with more than 50 percent of female students in Egypt, India, Mexico and Nigeria relying on free trials. We need to support digital literacy, adoption and usage by embracing innovative financing solutions that connect women with technology and educational services at low to no cost.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency of this task cannot be understated. A World Bank Group study found that women were 11 percentage points more likely to have lost a job during the pandemic, while female-owned businesses were 7 percentage points more likely to have closed than those owned by men. Online education has the potential to help these women gain new skills, open new businesses and re-enter the labor market — but only if they can access it.

Success stories like Confidence’s are not the norm right now, but they could be. By working together to remove the barriers keeping women from accessing online education and all the opportunities that come with the digital economy, we can all win.

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