When Sarah AbdelHafez was 12, her older brother brought home a cutting-edge piece of technology: a modem. Sitting around the family computer in Cairo, “we used to listen to the sound of the phone dialing … holding our breaths until we heard the sweet sound of successful connection,” she recalls. Now, a 27-year-old AbdelHafez has launched her own Internet-based business called EduKitten. It’s a series of Arabic mobile apps that teaches kids reading, math, and vocabulary with interactive cartoon-based books, games, and puzzles.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department, Intel, and U.N. Women released a new report outlining their plan to bring hundreds of millions more women online. For all these new Internet citizens, online access could kindle new interests and illuminate career paths. Some may follow AbdelHafez’s lead, using the Web to create new businesses—and in the process deliver a jolt to developing-world economies.
The report lays out a blueprint to double the number of female Internet users in developing countries in the next three years, to 1.2 billion from the current 600 million. (The authors define “Internet user” as someone who accesses the Web from any platform at least once a month. Users who log in less than once per month receive far less benefit from online access.) The goal is laudatory, but it also serves a reminder for anyone looking for the next big game-changer tech startup: With the right tools, the female Mark Zuckerberg may do her coding in a village in Kenya rather than a high-rise in Silicon Valley.
It may not seem that way at first, given the huge Internet gender gap in developing countries like Egypt, India, Mexico, and Uganda. Right now, an average of 23 percent fewer women than men are online in developing countries, according to the report. Two of the most critical factors that can influence whether a woman gets connected are availability and affordability. Even though the price of a broadband Internet connection has plunged for many parts of the developing world, it still costs on average more than 40 percent of annual per capita income. In wealthier nations, by contrast, that figure is just 1.7 percent of per capita Gross National Income according to the report. Why’s it so costly? A lack of both broadband infrastructure (for instance, fiber optic cables) and providers. A lack of market competition means the prices can—and do—stay prohibitive. These barriers apply to people of both genders, of course. But in some cases, the authors say, these problems hinder women more than men because they are compounded by cultural obstacles. Some husbands, for example, forbid their wives from using the family computer because they’re afraid of exposing impressionable women to inappropriate sexual content. (That’s one reason why only 14 percent of women in Azerbaijan have ever gone online, though 70 percent of men there have.)
Furthermore, Internet cafes—the easiest way for people to access the Web in many developing countries—are impractical for women who can’t leave their homes for religious and cultural reasons. And the stereotype that women just can’t be trusted with pricey tech also thwarts potential new users. An Indian woman with an engineering degree told the report’s authors that she was banned from the computer “for fear that if she touched it, something would go wrong.”
But perhaps the most important reason why many women stay offline is more fundamental: They often don’t know what the Internet is or how it could help them, so they have no incentive to learn about it or seek access to a computer.
The report offers all sorts of proposals to eradicate some of these hurdles—like launching a global campaign to spread the Internet word and tell women how access could improve their lives. The authors also implore mobile phone providers and websites to offer more content free of Internet data-charges (Facebook and Wikipedia already do this) to any woman with a cell phone. And they suggest cultivating local female role models by training and supporting low-income female ICT leaders. But what may really compel domestic policymakers to act is the powerful economic argument for getting more women online: If you give a woman an Internet connection, your country will make more money. Doubling the number of women online “would generate an estimated additional [$13 billion to $18 billion] in GDP across developing countries,” according to the report.
Why will increasing the number of women online produce so much cash? Here’s one reason, besides the role they’d play as consumers: Women like AbdelHafez are using the Internet to start their own businesses. And often, they’re in the perfect place—market-wise—to become successful tech entrepreneurs. That’s because the Internet frontier in poorer nations is largely unsettled, meaning that there’s a dearth of local content for women, especially in their own languages. Women who aren’t Internet users are generally lured online by the promise of connecting with other women and accessing information that’s relevant to their daily lives. According to the report, that’s part of the reason why they spend much more time on social networks than men: Since the content on those sites is posted by locals, visiting those pages is more useful and, likely, more satisfying.
The combination of massive, untapped markets and weak local content offerings has already inspired some women. For example, the report calls out Yasmine El-Mehairy and Zeinab Sami, who co-founded the website SuperMama in Egypt in 2010. The site, which went live in October 2011, offers tools and information in Arabic for new mothers in the Middle East. El-Mehairy, for one, isn’t a mother or even married—she just saw a market opportunity and took it
As women flock to the tailored sites, they’ll nag their friends to log on, hopefully exploding the numbers of new female users—and tech entrepreneurs. “Peer influence plays an important role,” the study authors say. “Seeing friends or family spend time on social networks can incite women to participate.”
More female entrepreneurs—and more women who use the Internet simply to find work—means poor communities will be better off: According to one study, women reinvest 90 percent of their income back into their family, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent for men.
Still, while there’s no question that women in the developing world face a slew of formidable Internet access hurdles, I’d add one caveat to reports like this: Life isn’t perfect for Internet users in the United States, either. While we may have significantly more access—69 percent of American women are online, according to the International Telecommunications Union (though the ITU’s definition of ”Internet user” differs from the new report’s) America has broadband infrastructure problems of its own. Americans pay higher prices for slower Internet speeds compared to their global counterparts, according to a recent report from New America’s Open Technology Institute. (Full disclosure: I work at NAF.)
And men all over fear the combination of women and tech: I remember my dad grimacing as my mom sat down at the family computer in the late ’90s—afraid she’d harm the system irrevocably. But he’s learned something since those early computer days: It’s easy to hit a key and mess up computer settings regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.
The best way to break men’s false assumptions about how a woman will use a computer—in the developing world or the developed—is to give her one and see what she does with it.