Home >Opinion >Online-views >She is offline: India’s digital gender divide

There’s something rotten in the state of Bharat’s internet. I will come right out and say it. There are too few women online. According to the latest Unesco survey, more than 70% of internet users are men. And that’s just wrong.

To make matters worse, we aren’t talking about it enough. In conference after conference, on manel (male panels) after manel discussing the “India growth story", barely anyone ever talks about how few women are online in this country. To give you a sense of just how pervasive the rot is, allow me to recount a small anecdote.

On a fine Tuesday morning, a fellow VC and I were enjoying breakfast under a banyan tree in Bengaluru’s old Airlines hotel. As I rattled away statistics from that depressing Unesco report, my companion interrupted me. “I don’t think this digital gender gap will get addressed any time soon," he said shaking his head, “Because, between you and me, I can understand why fathers and husbands don’t want to give their daughters and wives cell phones."

To hear someone as privileged as myself reiterate the realities of the Indian patriarchy was sobering. Not to mention depressing. Because even though the numbers don’t tell the full story, the sheer magnitude of the gap is staggering to behold.

The world today has 3.58 billion internet users. Roughly 2 billion (56%) are men and 1.57 billion (44%) are women. Of that shortfall of 430 million users, 42% comes from India.

Think about that for a second. India accounts for nearly half the digital gender gap worldwide, even though we account for 12% of the internet total population. India’s digital gender divide is worse than countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

India’s patriarchy runs deep and reflects in several other key indicators of development, such as workforce participation. Only 31% of women in India are part of the labour force that is engaged in any form of work in the market economy, compared with a global average of 50%.

This statistic does not, of course, take into account unpaid work such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for others in the family. In India, women perform 9.8 times the amount of unpaid care work than men.

This underrepresentation and under-compensation wounds our economy deeply. According to a McKinsey study titled The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in India, increasing women’s workforce participation from 31% to 41% would add $700 billion to our GDP by 2025, a 16% jump. In other words, this could be the single most impactful lever to drive our economic growth. To achieve this the McKinsey study proposed concerted action in eight areas to help India’s women achieve their economic potential.

Four of those interventions—helping girls get secondary and tertiary education, improving access to non-farm employment, expanding skills training to boost employability and, improving access to financial and digital services—can be addressed in some form or the other by access to smartphones. Increasing access to any tool can be a powerful lever when employed at scale. One of the most compelling examples we can call upon is Bihar’s now famous Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana—the chief minister’s cycle scheme for girls. The plan entitled girls in Class IX and X to a free cycle from the state or Rs2,000 to buy one.

What was then seen as a populist, and at best symbolic, gesture turned out to be anything but that. From 2007 to 2012, Bihar spent Rs174.36 crore on cycles for 871,000 schoolgirls. The return on that investment was exponential. Girls enrolling in schools in the state shot up three times, from 160,000 in 2006-07 to 490,000 in 2012. Dropouts among girls declined to 1 million from about 2.5 million in the same time period.

Steve Jobs once famously referred to computers as bicycles for our minds. He said, “I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometre. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation.

“But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

“And that’s what a computer is to me. It’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

If free bicycles could have such a dramatic impact on the state of education in one of India’s most backward states, just imagine the impact giving our women smartphones—a bicycle for the mind—could achieve. I’m not pretending like this is a magic bullet solution to the problem. Doubtless, such a scheme will be face tremendous political pushback from a predominantly male dispensation, a backlash from the patriarchy, and will probably be riddled with leakages where men will use the women in their family to get their hands on a free smartphone. This proposition also does not adequately address the deeper social issues which give rise to such problems.

But if such a scheme were to be implemented and paired with a digital literacy program like Internet Saathi (run by Google in association with Tata Trusts) to teach rural women how to access and use the internet, I have little doubt that it would act as the single-biggest boost to the Digital India program and benefit the Indian economy at large.

I believe this change will come sooner or later, but it is our bounden duty to accelerate the pace of progress. Allow me to end on a more optimistic note by quoting one of my favourite authors—Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe."

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid. His Twitter handle is @sahilkini.

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