Not Connected: The Digital Gender Divide


In his foreword for the Global Connectivity Report 2022, issued by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Houlin Zhao, the Secretary-General of the union, points out that “over the past three decades, the number of Internet users went from a few million in 1992 to almost five billion in 2021.” However, “one-third of humanity remains offline, and many users only enjoy basic connectivity.” (ITU 2022, p. iv)

Being connected to the Internet doesn’t guarantee fully or adequately gaining the benefits promised by cyberspace. As Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau tells us in the preface to the same report, “many among the online population are not ‘meaningfully connected’ because of connectivity that is too slow, or unreliable, or costly, or because they lack the digital skills needed to get the most out of devices and services.” (ITU 2022, p. vi)

Bogdan-Martin defines “meaningful connectivity” as “the possibility (…) to enjoy a safe, satisfying, enriching, productive, and affordable online experience.” The “missing link”, as Bogdan-Martin calls being disconnected from the Internet, “has morphed into multiple divides: across and within countries,” first among these divides is the gender one, i.e., between men and women.

Being the most recent, most comprehensive, if not necessarily the most accurate, the statistics of ITU’s report are our entry point for making sense of the Digital Gender Divide, which is, in its turn, a required step for gaining a better understanding of the Digital Gender Gap.

ITU: Gender Parity Ratio

As per the ITU, globally “more men (62 percent) were using the Internet in 2020 than women (57 percent).” For measuring the connectivity gender divide the report uses gender parity ratio (GPR) “calculated as the proportion of women using the Internet divided by the proportion of men using the Internet”. Gender parity is assumed to be achieved when GPR values are between 0.98 and 1.02. (ITU 2022, p. 25)

The following chart shows the percentage of internet users in different regions and groups of countries around the world. Based on the chart the table that follows calculates GPR values for these regions.

Source: (ITU, 2022, p. 26)


% Male

% Female


















Arab States




Asia Pacific








The table shows that only two state groups have achieved gender parity: the Americas and The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (GPR 1.01 and 0.98 respectively). Europe is close to achieving it (0.95). The Arabs states are still far from achieving gender parity (0.82), while Africa comes last with the least GPR on the list (0.69).

GSMA: The Mobile Phone Effect

The spread of smartphones around the world has contributed to the phenomenal increase in Internet penetration in the last decade more than any other factor. Today more people access the internet either primarily or exclusively through their smartphones than those who access it through their PCs.

The General Systems Mobile Association (GSMA) seems more concerned with the Digital Gender Gap compared to ITU. For several years now they issue a separate report under the name “The Mobile Gender Gap Report.” Their reports offer a slightly different, but rather helpful point of view, especially as they depend on on-ground surveys and interviews in a selected number of Low- and Middle-Income Countries. (GSMA 2022, p. 4)

The statistics of GSMA are important given that “Mobile is the primary way men and women access the internet in LMICs, accounting for 85 percent of broadband connections in 2021.” This percentage translates to “More than 3.2 billion people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) now access the internet on a mobile phone.” (GSMA 2022, p. 4)

A selection of the key findings of the GSMA’s report for this year (2022) includes the following:

  • While more women started accessing the Internet last year “Only 59 million additional women in low-and middle-income countries started using mobile internet in 2021 compared to 110 million in 2020.” (GSMA 2022, p. 7)

  • The trend in which the mobile internet gender gap was reduced throughout the last years (25% in 2017 to 15% in 2020) has stalled or has been slightly reversed as “women are now 16 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet, which translates into 264 million fewer women than men.(GSMA 2022, p. 7)


  • Comparing different regions, “The gender gap is widest in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and has remained relatively unchanged in all regions since 2017 except South Asia.

  • South Asia is an interesting case as “the mobile internet gender gap had narrowed significantly, from 67 percent in 2017 to 36 percent in 2020, but has now widened to 41 percent.” More and more men are using mobile internet in India in particular (45% in 2017 to 51% in 2020) while the percentage of women using mobile Internet has stalled at 30% throughout those years. (GSMA 2022, p. 7)

  • Ownership of a smartphone is generally considered to be a condition for using mobile Internet. It is not surprising that the change in the figures for the gap in ownership of smartphones, throughout the last years, are almost identical to those of the mobile internet gender gap. After a steady decrease in the gap from 20% in 2017 to 16% in 2020, “Women are now 18 percent less likely than men to own a smartphone, which translates into 315 million fewer women than men owning a smartphone.” (GSMA 2022, p. 7)

  • The increasing smartphone ownership gender gap in South Asia is responsible for the overall increase of it across low- and middle-income countries in addition to “a continued increase in the smartphone gender gap in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • The mobile internet gender divide as expressed in the figures above mentioned is still not representative of the actual divide related to how both men and women use their access to the Internet, as per GSMA, “women tend to use their mobile phones for a narrower range of activities than men on a weekly basis.

  • Additionally, while ownership of a smartphone theoretically enables access to the Internet, in real life “a significant proportion of smartphone owners do not use mobile internet, particularly women.” As an example, in Bangladesh “26 percent of women who own a smartphone do not use mobile internet compared to 20 percent of men.” (GSMA 2022, p. 7)

  • Furthermore, “Women are still less likely to be aware of mobile internet than men, and while awareness has been increasing, growth has slowed.” (GSMA 2022, p. 7)

A4AI: The Divide, the Causes, and the Cost

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) provides a civil society approach compared to the inter-governmental, and business approaches offered by ITU and GSMA respectively. In a study prepared by Ana María Rodríguez Pulgarín and Teddy Woodhouse and published by A4AI under the name The Costs of Exclusion: Economic Consequences of the Digital Gender Gap, the authors differentiate between two different terms, the digital gender divide, which refers to “a binary division of people into the connected and the unconnected,” and “can also relate to the division of different user experiences” in contradistinction to the digital gender gap, which “speaks to many of the same aspects of the digital divide, as measured by gender. However, a focus on the ‘gender gap’ emphasizes that this digital inequality is just one aspect of a broader system of discrimination and disadvantages that limit women’s and girls’ potential to participate in society.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 6) (emphasis is mine)

The A4AI report focuses on the failure throughout the past decade to close the digital gender gap. Using a sample of 32 Low and Lower-Middle Income countries (LLMICs) “(covering 72.2% of LLMICs’ total GDP)”, the authors report that “just over a third of women were connected to the internet, compared to almost half of men.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 9) For these Low and Lower-Middle Income Countries (LLMICs), in particular, the gap “appears stable despite steady increases in the number of women online. In 2011, the gap was 30.9% and by 2020, it dropped only half a percentage point to 30.4%.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 10)

How short the rate of increase in the number of women with access to the Internet came throughout the past decade can be calculated through the fact that “Over the last decade, the share of women online has increased at a rate of 12.2% a year. For the gap to have closed by 2020, women would have had to have connected at a rate of 15.6%. It means an additional 150.9 million women would have had to have connected.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 11) This failure to close the gap is due to the shortcomings of the policies enacted with the declared purpose of closing it, or to the complete absence of such policies in the countries in the study sample.

The report also endeavors to explain the direct reasons for the continuing digital gender divide. As per the interviews conducted by the report team, the cited reasons were affordability, wage gaps, device gaps, privacy/security, literacy and skills, and the cumulative effect of all these causes combined.

The affordability reason refers to the fact that “the cost of connectivity keeps women offline.” The cost of connectivity can be further broken into two components: First, “handset cost” which is “the most frequently cited reason among mobile phone users in low- and middle-income countries for not using the internet.” Secondly, “the cost of data tariffs” which as per the report “negatively limited how much 25% of respondents used the internet in three low- and middle-income countries.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 7)

Related to affordability are the wage gaps. As per the report, “in a 2021 survey of device costs in 187 countries around the world, the cheapest new smartphone cost US$104 on average.” This represents a quarter of the global average income for a month, but “in the context of the global gender wage gap, where women globally earn around 77 cents for each dollar a man earns, these costs are, on average, higher for women as a percentage of their income.” Considering this ratio, “if a man could pay for a smartphone on one month’s wages, a woman would need to work an extra ten days to afford the same device.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 7)

That necessarily reflects on the device gaps, accounting for women’s ownership of smartphones, and as per the A4IA report women are “15% less likely to own a smartphone than men.” This “forms a technical limitation to what women are able to do, even when they’re connected to the internet.” It also shows how mere access to the Internet is not enough to measure the digital gender gap. Hence, the importance of the concept of meaningful connectivity, we mentioned before, which allows us to track “the depth of different online experiences between simply being connected and having internet access of sufficient quality to enable someone to work, live, and participate in the online world.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 7)

Another reason for the Internet access gap is related to privacy/security since “women, generally, (…) hold higher fears around online privacy and security.” In several LLMICs “women more frequently reported being afraid about personal data privacy at the same time as they reported lower rates of creating content online.” Also, in several countries where the study was conducted “women remarked on the fear of being manipulated or targeted because of what they posted on social media. In their own eyes, the internet is not a safe place for women.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 8)

Literacy is an important factor as well, and as “the literacy gap between men and women in the world persists (90% of adult men, compared to only 83% of adult women as of 2019), this gap replicates itself into the digital world.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 8)

The above reasons have the cumulative effect reflected in that “women report facing greater family and social pressures against internet use.” This is because “together, the financial, technical, safety, and educational gaps faced by women on an individual basis accumulate into a social norm that reinforces the myth that ‘access to technology and the internet by women is … immoral, inappropriate, or unnecessary.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 8)

Finally, the A4IA report adds a new dimension that should be a concern for the LLMICs societies and governments which is the economic cost of women’s exclusion from the Internet. As per the report “excluding women from the digital economy takes a significant economic toll on low and lower-middle-income countries (LLMICs).” As per A4AI estimates that “over the last decade, LLMICs have lost a total of $1 trillion USD in the gross domestic product (GDP) to the gender gap in internet use.” Translating this as per the “current tax-to-GDP ratios in these countries, this loss represents an estimated $24.7 billion in lost tax revenue in 2020.” (Pulgarín and Woodhouse 2021, p. 9)

While the equality of women and men is a human right and should for its own sake be an objective for the policies of state governments around the world, it is a factual reality that most governments would be more concerned with economic losses, especially when interpreted to losses in their tax revenues being the main source of their income.

Measuring the Digital Gender Divide

The Internet access gender divide is too complex to be represented by one figure. There are many faces for this divide each is deeply rooted in the overall social gender gap that reproduces an endless number of gender divides in every aspect of social life. However, even if we limited ourselves to representing the digital gender divide by the difference between the percentage of men accessing the Internet and the percentage of women accessing it, there is still the question of how to use these percentages to measure the divide in a way that really helps us make sense of the issue, and tackle practically through policy recommendations.

How to measure the digital gender divide? As per the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) “there are different options available to calculate the gap — and not all organizations use the same one.” The prevailing approach “to calculate the gender digital divide — used by the ITU and the GSMA — is to define the gap as the difference in the internet penetration rate between men and women, as a proportion of the internet penetration rate for men,” and its formula is:

% of men using the internet – % of women using the internet / % of men using the internet

An alternative approach promoted by the “Web Foundation and has also been used by the Economist Intelligence Unit — is to calculate the gap as the difference between the internet penetration rate between men and women, but as a proportion of internet penetration rate for women,” and its formula is:

% of men using the internet – % of women using the internet / % of women using the internet

Can we judge one of these two approaches to be more suitable? A4AI argues that “when our intention is to focus on the disparity and disadvantages faced by women, we believe it is best to ground our analysis from their perspective.” While this seems like an ethical reason for preferring one approach over the other the A4AI claims that “Using a women-centered perspective we can more accurately understand how many more women need to come online in order to reach gender parity.

To make sense of this claim let’s first say that the actual number of women who need to get access to the Internet to achieve parity with men, is the same no matter what approach we use for measuring the gender divide, but it makes sense when turning this number into a percentage that the reference should be the percentage of women already online. Simply because the requirements for getting more women online differ from those for men. A percentage with reference to women gives a better representation of how wide the gap we need to close is.

The following table compares the digital gender divide as measured with reference to male Internet users to the same measure with reference to female Internet users across 3 years and different groups of countries (LDCs = Least Developed Countries, MI = Middle-Income Countries, and HI = Hight-Income Countries).

Source: Web Foundation calculations – based on the Economist Intelligence Unit country-disaggregated data




Average LDCs

Average LI

Average MI

Average HI


Male %






Female %






Gender gap – EIU (men centered)






Gender gap (women-centered)







Male %






Female %






Gender gap – EIU (men centered)






Gender gap (women-centered)







Male %






Female %






Gender gap – EIU (men centered)






Gender gap (women-centered)






As we can see in the table, the differences between the women-centered and the men-centered gaps are significant, and they are wider when a lower percentage of women are accessing the Internet, to begin with. This is exactly why women-centered percentages are more meaningful as they reflect the increasing difficulty of obtaining parity as the percentage of women accessing the Internet gets lower and lower in the least developed countries.

Digital Gender Divide vs Digital Gender Gap

The aim of this paper is to provide the reader with an introductory survey of the digital gender gap. We understand this gap as a very complex social phenomenon that can be recognized but can’t be reduced to the quantifiable figures and numbers which together constitute the digital gender divide. In this paper, both terms were used interchangeably because most of the sources used don’t differentiate between them. The difference however will become clearer as we move from the quantifiable digital gender divide that was the subject of this paper to the different faces of the digital gender gap which we will explore later on.

The dangers posed by the digital gender gap to the livelihood of women all over the world and particularly in its most deprived regions can’t be under-estimated. As the Internet and other digital technologies continue transforming our world and societies, whoever is not part of this ongoing transformation will be heavily penalized by being excluded from the benefits and opportunities offered by the new digital world. For already marginalized social groups including women, the exclusion of these benefits and opportunities would mean more marginalization, more discrimination against them, and less chance to obtain equality that is their undeniable right as human beings.


GSMA. 2022. “The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022.” Global System for Mobile Association.

ITU. 2022. “Global Connectivity Report 2022.” Geneva: International Telecommunication Union.

Pulgarín, Ana María Rodríguez, and Teddy Woodhouse. 2021. “The Costs of Exclusion: Economic Consequences of the Digital Gender Gap.” Alliance for Affordable Internet.