Advancing Research for Gender Equality in the Digital Age

2019•05•01 UNU-CS

The United Nations University (UNU) takes an interdisciplinary, cross-cutting approach to research on pressing global problems. UNU generates knowledge to support an evidence-based rethinking of policies by providing decision-makers with fresh perspectives on the most urgent policy issues, proactive analyses of emerging concerns, and sound policy alternatives.

To better highlight UNU’s people, approach, and products, the UNU 2018 Annual Report includes feature articles that provide an example of UNU’s work on selected topics: the following feature on gender digital equality, and features on wastewater management and inclusive economic development.


With the dawn of a fourth industrial revolution, the world is on the verge of technological fusion that will hyper-connect humans, environments, and the products of digital innovation. This momentum is already being harnessed for data-driven progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but it will also undermine SDG success if women and girls cannot equally and meaningfully participate in the digital sphere.

The core tenet of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is “leave no one behind”, an objective that requires gender equality. Persistent barriers, however, are marginalising women and girls and widening what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called “a deep gender gap in access to digital technologies”.

The UNU Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS) is targeting this digital divide with research examining the extent and dynamics of gender-based digital inequalities through its work with EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. EQUALS is an initiative co-founded by UNU, three UN agencies (the International Telecommunication Union, UN Women, and the International Trade Centre), and the mobile communications trade body GSMA.

UNU-CS leads the EQUALS Research Group comprising more than 30 researchers from education and research institutions, civil society, and technology-relevant organisations around the world. Their research is building comprehensive evidence that tells the story of uneven experiences of women and girls compared to men and boys in contexts ranging from jobs, wages, security, and privacy, to cyber threats and new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Assessing the state of gender digital equality

Secretary-General Guterres framed his 2018 address to the General Assembly around two “epochal challenges” — one being the risks associated with advances in technology, including their potential “to discriminate against women and reinforce our male-dominated culture”. But countering the trends that lead to digital discrimination first requires a foundation of knowledge on the current socio-economic and cultural barriers to gender digital equality.

“We know there is a gender digital divide, but we need data and evidence that demonstrate its extent and implications. This first report by the EQUALS Research Group fulfils that need by providing comprehensive insights on gender digital inequality, highlighting the implications of persistent gaps and the reduced, unequal and even dangerous digital experiences of women and girls compared to men and boys.” António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General

Up until now, collection of official statistics in this regard has been hindered by varying research capacities of national statistics offices and a deficit of agreed-on definitions and methodologies for data collection. As a result, there is limited geographical coverage for most information and communications technology (ICT) indicators, and a severe lack of sex-disaggregated data, especially for developing countries.

In 2018, the EQUALS Research Group completed an initial research phase aimed at producing a global outlook on the state of gender digital equality. With case study contributions from EQUALS experts and UNU-led curation of data from numerous sources, the report — “Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership” — examines gender equality in three core action areas: access to ICTs, basic and advanced digital skills, and meaningful participation and leadership in the technology industry.

From digital access to digital skills

Despite apparent improvements in digital access in developing countries, EQUALS research is revealing that the impact on gender digital gaps is not consistent. Instead, the analysis shows that “a gender digital divide persists irrespective of a country’s overall ICT access levels, economic performance, income levels, or geographic location”.

Basic digital access and literacy are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for women to meaningfully use ICTs to advance their social and economic mobility. And as technologies become more sophisticated and expensive and enable more transformational use, gender digital divides often widen in favour of men.

One area where this trend will have profound consequences is the global jobs market. Technologies such as AI will reconfigure employment, supplanting many of the office and administrative jobs which are performed by a larger share of women in many countries. This means that efforts to build an inclusive digital society should not only improve women’s digital access, but must also equip them with adaptable digital skills for jobs of the future in fields such as computing and engineering.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education can establish the foundation for these advanced digital skills. EQUALS is finding, however, that in many parts of the world, girls perceive their own skill levels to be lower than boys and that they have less interest in STEM subjects, resulting in only a third of women pursuing these fields in higher education.

“There is no one solution to closing gender digital divides. Gender digital inequality stems from multiple intersecting economic, social, and cultural barriers. Remedies must be grounded in evidence and knowledge about which barriers are at play and what would work best in different contexts.” Araba Sey, UNU-CS Principal Research Fellow

Importantly, the research is spotlighting potential ways to help overcome social and psychological barriers that prevent young women and girls from aspiring to ICT-related careers. Computer coding schools, technology boot camps, makerspaces, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are just some of the examples that could provide women with experience and confidence, and help enhance gender equality in ICT skills — provided they do not reproduce the inequalities in other technology sectors.

Therefore, efforts to close gender digital gaps should tackle social and cultural biases to ensure that the push for greater female inclusion in ICT access, skills, and leadership does not increase exposure to undesirable experiences, workplace-related sexual harassment, or exposure to cyber–violence.

Breaking the digital ceiling

Female leaders and role models in the technology field also play an influential role in creating an environment where girls and women are willing and able to safely cultivate their digital skills. However, on average, women represent less than 35% of the ICT workforce, even dropping as low as 2% in some sub-sectors. And among those troubling percentages, women are more likely to have junior or support roles with less opportunity for advancement.

Perhaps most seriously, there is a very low rate of women at the highest levels of ICT policymaking where only 28 countries have a woman ICT minister and only 25 have a woman heading a telecom regulator.

When women are absent from leadership roles, this results in a lower diversity of opinions, which affects the quality of decision-making throughout the sector. While there is much research yet to be done, it is clear that women must be championed to overcome gendered obstacles in science and technology careers and find paths to promotion.

Evidence for action

UNU’s leadership in the EQUALS Research Group reflects the University’s commitment to innovative research that supports the UN’s priority initiatives. By building evidence on the state of and barriers to gender digital equality, UNU research is supporting strategies to increase women’s ICT access, proposing ways to close gender gaps in digital skills, and advancing remedies for gender inequality in ICT leadership.

Strong, credible data and case studies are vital not only to understanding the scope of gender equality challenges across different countries and regions, but also to help policymakers, businesses, civil society, and academia develop more effective programmes to measure and evaluate progress. Only then can we have confidence in our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and truly ensure that no one is left behind.


For more on UNU’s recent work to help achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, see the UNU 2018 Annual Report.