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Mitigating the digital gender gap

From institutionalized sexism in the society to gender-based stereotyping in the IT realm, women continue to face a multitude of challenges in technology and beyond.
by Arooj Khalid

The rights struggle is not something new to women around the world. Whether it’s the wage gap, reproductive rights, or gender-based discrimination, the world has heard about it, and it continues to sit on its hands.

Abu Sirkhel

In the past two decades, our planet has undergone a complete transformation in terms of technology. The integration of computers and the internet has revolutionized the world once known to humans of the 19th century. According to Datareportal’s Digital 2020 Global report, there are 4.54 billion internet users in the world. However, if anything has remained consistent, it is the lack of women in the technology sector.

From Lovelace’s contributions to the first computer, to Katherine Johnson’s efforts to send humans in space, women have faced barriers that do not allow the breaking of a proverbial glass ceiling. While almost half of the population of our world is female, this statistic is not mimicked by women in technology.

In the United States of America, the tech industry has witnessed a 79% growth since 1990. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), only 25 percent of computing occupations belong to women. Moreover, 88% of information technology patents have male-only teams.

Gaping discrimination

In Pakistan, women face a myriad of economic, social, and political challenges. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2020, Pakistan ranks 151 out of 153 countries in terms of bridging the gender gap.

Even though the data available for women and technology in Pakistan is scarce, the fact that most women don’t have access to technology is no secret. While the use of the internet is not widespread, only 35% of the total population uses the internet, whereas 75% has mobile phones.

Despite 49% of the Pakistani population being female, their basic literacy rate is as low as 46%, whereas men have a basic literacy rate of 71%. Among women, only 13% have internet access, and they are 28% less likely to have a mobile phone device than men.

The penetration of digital media, whether aimed at learning, recreation, or business, remains far lower still. According to Facebook, the audience for its advertisements in Pakistan consists of only 19.2% women and 80.8% men. A similar statistic by LinkedIn shows that women make up 16.3% of the advertisement audience on LinkedIn, whereas men make up the remaining 83.7%.

Tech utopia

Today, the need to address the digital gender gap is constantly increasing, especially as we navigate the newfangled state of affairs in 2020. The burgeoning entrepreneurial atmosphere and growth of tech startups in Pakistan boasts great potential to minimize the digital gap and lay the foundation of a new era.

Significant research suggests that the inclusion of women and other marginalized groups in the business and tech industries produces profitable results. Studying a multitude of teams, researchers also found that those with equal numbers of men and women perform better than any other ratio of gender diversity. They are not only more creative but their innovative skills and teamwork are more likely to reap fruitful results.

Another analysis comprising 20,000 companies in the U.S. showed that successful tech startups have twice as many women in senior positions than unsuccessful ones.

“Digital literacy and awareness of the benefits of technology are spreading across Pakistan in both rural and urban areas,” says Zainab Salim, a senior software engineer.

Working in the Pakistani technology industry herself, she has witnessed a significant change in the past five years. She adds that the number of people from rural areas joining in on the tech revolution, learning digital skills, and participating in the industry is on the rise.

Smashing patriarchy

While Pakistan may have the potential, and might be well on its way to digitization, there are a number of obstacles that must be tackled before women can have equal opportunities and prospects of advancing in technology. One of the biggest sources of these barriers is the prevalent patriarchal notions across the country.

Faiza Yousuf, the founder of multiple initiatives including CodeGirls, recalls her experience working with women and explained that a lot of women are reluctant or not allowed by their families to use digital media platforms. And those who do, usually make social media accounts by the names of their husband, brothers, or children. “Smartphone ownership and access to the internet at home are really big problems for women,” she maintains.

Danish Khan, CEO of Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, agrees with the notion. Talking to  MIT Technology Review Pakistan, he reiterates that women face an increasingly hostile environment, where their basic rights are often disregarded or marginalized using tradition, religion, or social norms as excuses.

Addressing the dearth of basic freedom for women across the country, he says: “With cultural patriarchy still largely dictating the narrative of gender, women are considered beings of the private – of the chaar-diwari [four walls]. This dichotomy of gender has transformed into the hierarchy of gender, whereby women are often considered subordinate to the male gender.”

Eventually, normative beliefs like ‘women cannot be effective leaders’ and ‘men have to be the bread earners and look after the family financially’ keep women from unleashing their full human potential. This discrepancy becomes more explicit as we travel from urban to rural areas, where the claws of patriarchy tighten around women’s autonomy and internet access decreases as a whole.

“Women living in far-flung villages of Pakistan lack not only access to technology but also the privilege and power to possess technological devices,” explains Khan. He says that the first barrier to overcome in working with artisans and entrepreneurs from rural areas is the patriarchal mindset of women and education.

Is access enough?

While access to technology and digital tools can boost the journey toward equality, it certainly can’t manage to close the digital gender gap by itself. Minimizing the gender disparity in technology is nothing short of an obstacle course.

“Access to technology is only the first step toward minimizing the digital divide for women. The second step would be making the internet safer for women,” explains Faiza Yousuf. She emphasizes the need for laws and policies that protect women from harassment and other problems online. Only then, we can begin to move forward.

Yousuf adds that a lot of women stop using the internet because of these reasons and it discourages them from learning and growing. Stereotyping is another blockade on the obstacle course of women and technology. Most of the time when women reach out, and begin practicing digital skills, they are met by stereotypical remarks regarding their capabilities, as well as conventional notions that STEM fields are only for men to excel in.  “The biggest advantage of the internet is that you have access to all kinds of knowledge in the world, but for many women, if they try to learn something new online, they are discouraged and told that they won’t be able to learn,” Yousuf explains.

After overcoming all of the above, the journey hasn’t yet come to an end. Language serves as a massive barrier when it comes to the digital divide. The lack of localized content and illiteracy keeps women from advancing in tech fields. Basic literacy and competency in English also need to increase along with digital literacy when it comes to technology.

Despite the exigent and arduous journey that our society needs to undertake, many women at senior positions in the tech industry of Pakistan are hopeful that the efforts to bridge this gap will soon bear fruit. They believe that women are an untapped potential resource that can enhance the developmental process of the country. If the right efforts are made toward the inclusion of women in tech spaces, the tech industry is not the only one that will transform for the better.

Bridging divides

A number of initiatives are working to minimize the gender gap by providing digital literacy to women and making space for them in the cyber world. Codegirls takes advantage of the skill-based nature of the tech industry and arranges a free boot camp for girls with intermediate or secondary education, teaching them various digital skills such as web development, and programming, etc. The Kaarvan Crafts Foundation is also undertaking a project called ‘Digitize to Equalize’ in which the organization attempts to bridge the digital gender divide.

Through local community role models, and a focus on the economic empowerment of women, the organization gains trust of male gatekeepers.  The creation of a system that encourages traditional skills, and provides access to industry markets, mobilizes the community towards a vision of dignified livelihoods and equal responsibility of raising a family beyond conventional gender roles.

Looking toward the future, Pakistan needs to understand that digitization only works if all citizens are provided with digital literacy, basic concepts surrounding the use of technology, and the ability to use it for their betterment. It cannot be a successful strategy if 49% of the population is left in the dark.

The likelihood of recognizing female role models in the Pakistani tech industry depends on facilities provided by tech employers such as equal pay, maternity leaves, child-friendly workspaces, and the endorsement of remote work. “Reducing the intensity of the gender gap cannot be achieved by one sector or organization,”  Faiza Yousuf reiterates.


Arooj Khalid is a freelance reporter based in Lahore.