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Women have been slogging through a society rooted in inequality and riddled with sexism long before the internet was invented, so it's not too surprising that we're seeing same thing happening now in cyberspace. That doesn't mean it's not a problem.
A new United Nations report reveals that there's a major online gender gap that needs closing, quick. Worldwide, 200 million fewer women have access to the internet than men, and that’s expected to widen to 350 million if nothing’s done to change it.
In today's information economy, that puts women at a socioeconomic disadvantage right out the digital gate—not to mention it creates an unbalanced economy that's not doing society any favors. In fact, according to the report, if the world were to add 600 million female internet users, it would boost the global GDP by up to $18 billion.
The internet can be a tool to advance gender equality, but only if both genders have equal access to it. It's also a vicious catch-22, as the report explains: "Women or girls may be choosing not to go online, or be prevented from going online, because there is a belief that women and girls cannot master technology—but if women fail to go online, they may never master technology."
What's more, they won't acquire the skills needed to work in the digital economy, which would limit the opportunity to make money and buy things like a smartphone or broadband connection. Since we’re talking about the whole world here, the reasons for the gender gap are multifaceted, to say the least. At the most basic level, you can separate the root cause into two factors: women either not having access to the web, or choosing not to spend time online.
To the first point, the gender gap is wider in "developing" countries where internet access is harder to come by accross the board—with 16 percent fewer women online versus 2 percent in developed countries, according to the report.
The most notable imbalance is in certain Arab nations, where the female citizens are denied a whole swath of basic digital rights that men enjoy. In many nations it's still commonplace for the men to work—maybe in an IT field—while women stay home to raise the kids. And in places like Africa or the Middle East, Mom's leisure time probably isn't spent surfing the web.
On the other hand, in many societies—including Western culture, where gender norms are becoming somewhat less rigid—it's not just longstanding traditional gender roles keeping women offline, but a new form of cyber-sexism that's emerged in the digital age.
The report describes what most people already know: that many women and girls face harassment and gender-fueled cyberbulling. We're talking about things as serious as threats of violence, sexual violence, and verbal abuse. Here again, there are online tools and apps being developed to help combat harassment in the real-world, but they're only useful if women are using them. There's also the more subtle forms of prejudice, like false stereotypes or an intimidating boys' locker room atmosphere (hello, Reddit). The list here is long even in progressive cultures: girls feeling discouraged to get into technology, social media users disguising their gender to get a fairer response, women facing danger for speaking up about misogyny online.
Granted, there's no way to know if the internet has begot a unique culture that incites sexism or is just acting as a medium highlighting it. But insofar that it's the former, even a little, that's worth sounding the alarm. It's kind of like a middle-aged person taking up smoking: It's much harder to break the habit than it is to just not start in the first place.
The web as we know it is only some 20 years old, and, in the Western world at least, it was born into a culture where the fight for gender equality came far enough for a prominent female journalist to declared we’ve reached the "end of men." Reports like this one, and the discussion on the subject that will follow at the upcoming UN general assembly, are crucial to calling this problem out before it gets worse—"‘food for thought’ in the hope of stimulating debate and action," as the report puts it.
If we can't nip the gender gap in the bud, the supply and demand realities of any marketplace could make the problem spiral deeper, the report notes. When there are less female web users, online services and companies start catering more toward men, creating in the process a culture that's less appealing to women, and on and on from there, until we're 50 years old trying to figure out how we let ourselves get hooked on cigarettes.