The Second Digital Divide and Young Women

Cecilia Castaño

Professor of Applied Economics, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

The sustained increase in the number of users of computers and Internet connections seems to indicate that the first digital divide can be resolved in the future. The second digital divide, related to the skills necessary to obtain all the benefits of access (digital literacy), affects women more than men. This is a complex challenge to resolve in that efficient policies aimed at overcoming the inequality between men and women in access to and use of Internet is slowing down due to the absence of rigorous data and research.

The so-called digital divide is actually several gaps in one. There is a technological divide – great gaps in infrastructure. There is a content divide. There is a gender divide, with women and girls enjoying less access to information technology than do men and boys. This can be true of rich and poor countries alike.”

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Statement to the World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva, 10th December 2003.

We sometimes think that, even though technological innovations are disseminated first among the richest nations and citizens, with time the majority will adopt them and this process will eliminate economic and social differences.1 This seems to happen in the case of television, mobile phones and other easy to use appliances. But this is not always so. Just as happened with industrialisation and economic development, not all countries and not all citizens participate in these new developments at the same rate and intensity. Some never even take part.

The reality is that technological innovations are not disseminated regularly in the system. Not all companies, not all individuals, become users and, even less so, advanced users. Companies that do not adopt relevant innovations in their field will end up losing market share and will be replaced by others more efficient. This will benefit consumers but will provoke a process of employment substitution: in one part of the system jobs are destroyed and in another they are created. The global employment level may not be affected negatively but the people who have lost their jobs may perhaps have problems finding new paid work, unless their qualification and specialisation levels are in high demand.

From the social perspective, if a large number of citizens do not adopt innovations considered crucial, this can generate economic and social inequalities and strengthen others that previously existed. Everett Rogers, in his book Diffusion of Innovations (2003), defines the rate of distribution of innovations as a Bell curve, within which it is possible to differentiate up to five groups of individuals, based on their socioeconomic and demographic characteristics and their attitudes:

  • A first minority group, known as the “innovators”, encompasses all the people able to take initiatives and run risks.
  • In a second group are those individuals known as early adopters, normally social leaders with a high education level.
  • The third group (early majority) is more numerous and is characterised by the prudence of its members, and by a wide network of social contacts.
  • A fourth group, equally numerous (late majority), is made up of sceptical, traditional people with low socioeconomic status.
  • Finally, the “laggards” group contains those people who either maintain a very traditional level or are isolated in their social system. The first tend to distrust innovations. The second, in contrast, lack social interactions to enhance the perception of benefits and stimulate the use of innovation and, therefore, are permanently deprived of its advantages.

From Rogers’ classification we can deduce that for access to be effective (and continued), to the possibility of access must be added knowledge, interest and the applicability and utility of this tool for the achievement of personal objectives. In this way, the study of the digital divide cannot be limited to an analysis of Internet access (first digital divide), but must go one step further and be involved in the analysis and determination of the uses and intensity of use of Internet (second digital divide).

The literature and empirical research stress the positive effects of knowing how to use computers and Internet (Korupp and Szydlik, 2005; Rogers, 2001). Some authors consider technology as a potential route of social exclusion – for example, access to work – and claim that the absence of technology will increase the disadvantages of certain social groups (Liff and Shepherd, 2004). Others insist that the existence of digital divides constitutes a barrier for the development of an equitable information society (Brynin, 2004). This means that if there are factors that delay the adoption of these innovations by citizens, economic efficiency and social wellbeing will be affected by this lack of adaptation of human capital.

The First and Second Digital Divides

In order to understand the problem of the digital divide, the key lies in accepting that the most difficult barrier to overcome is not that of access (infrastructures, diffusion of appliances), but that of use. In other words, the opportunities created by these technological innovations depend on the use made of them and how they affect professional development and people’s lives. From this perspective, the crucial factor is the ability of each individual to use innovations in function of their specific needs and interests.

The study of the digital divide must go one step further and be involved in the analysis and determination of the uses and intensity of use of Internet

The divide digital is, therefore, an important social problem that accompanies the process of diffusion of Internet. Rogers (2001) defines the digital divide as “the gap that exists between individuals or systems advantaged by the Internet and those individuals or systems relatively disadvantaged by the Internet” and he relates it with the hypothesis of the knowledge divide, that is: “As the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease” (Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970, cited in Rogers).

One of the characteristics of the innovations brought to us by computers and Internet is that they require specific abilities. Access is not enough. This is not very different from what happened in the 15th century. Printing made possible the diffusion of knowledge, allowed its efficient storage and facilitated communication between scientists. But access to the printed material was not enough. To benefit from this, it was necessary to possess certain skills (reading and writing). Korupp and Szydlik (2005) emphasise, with respect to the difference between mobile phones and computers, that “rather than an ordinary domestic tool, a computer should be considered a complex multi-task device. Compared to mobile phones, for instance, using a computer and Internet requires specific skills which go beyond appliances which only require the push of a button.” The key is that computers and Internet demand specific skills if you want to use them as a tool, which creates a relative advantage for the people and organisations that use them. They can also be modes of entertainment and consumption. What makes them radically different, however, is that they are very powerful tools for working and learning, and that they require a certain capacity for memory and abstract thought, which is the basis of learning skills. Rogers (2001) emphasises that Internet is “an innovation characterized by a high degree of relative advantage (the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes). For example, compared to postal mail, e-mail is quicker, cheaper and instantaneous. Compared to books or other information sources, the Web is a far more convenient medium for information searching.”

Given the above, even though we may sometimes think that Internet is within reach of everyone, the reality is that, in addition to reading and writing skills (in many cases in English), it requires a certain ability to search for information, process it and use it to achieve certain objectives. Otherwise, it becomes leisure or passive consumption of free music, films or television series (which angers those who produce and sell these leisure products). All these uses are important but it is not clear that they contribute substantially to the generation of human and social capital or to competitiveness.

Computers and Internet demand specific skills if you want to use them as a tool, which creates a relative advantage for the people and organisations that use them

The second digital divide is related, therefore, to the knowledge divide and, more specifically, to digital skills or e-skills necessary to live and work in societies characterised by the growing importance of information and knowledge, which is called digital literacy. This term was coined by Gilster (1997) to define people’s capacity to adapt to new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and, especially, to Internet. Since then it has been used to define a whole range of cognitive and social technical skills necessary to carry out tasks in digital environments.

Other broader definitions (AAUW, 2000) talk of fluency and refer to the capacities for acquisition of practical skills in ICTs necessary for everyday work and life. It implies certain knowledge of hardware and software to use the equipment and programs correctly. We will later be surprised at the few people who actually have this basic knowledge, including young people and university graduates. Digital literacy also involves acquiring knowledge of searching for, classification, evaluation and presentation of information. Nobody should leave their education centre without knowing how to search for, classify, evaluate and present information related to their speciality.

In any case, as Korupp and Szydlik (2005) point out in their empirical analysis of the causes and trends of the digital divide, the benefits of digital literacy are clear, as there is a positive correlation with the ability to relate socially, improve academic results, mathematical and linguistic skills and encourage success in the search for work and the achievement of higher salaries.

Gender Differences in Relation to the Digital Divide and Digital Literacy

Gender is one of the most important variables when explaining the delay in entering the world of new technologies and, undoubtedly, the use of Internet. The differences in access between men and women are found in all societies today, both in contexts of advanced economies and developing economies. The concerns about gender differences in the use of computers and Internet are growing. In 2007, both the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union published studies that demonstrated with data that there is cause for alarm. Several authors have warned about gender differences in the use of computers and Internet. Although the use of ICTs has become an essential feature of social activity throughout Europe, men are more regular users of Internet than women in all countries and age groups. Moreover, far more men have jobs in computing than women in the EU. The results of the Community Survey 2006 on the use of ICTs in homes and by individuals are clear:

  • Among youths (16-24 years of age) the percentage of men who use a computer on a daily basis (67%) is greater than women (62%). The difference is also significant between boys (53%) and girls (48%) who use Internet every day. In Spain, these same proportions are 58% for men and 56% for women, respectively, in terms of computer access, and 44% and 41% in terms of daily Internet use.
  • If we consider computer skills as an approximation of digital literacy or digital fluency, the situation is even more serious. In all age groups, the proportion of women with high levels of computer and navigation skills is smaller than that of men. It is again notable that among the youngest (16-24 years) gender differences remain the same: only 30% of women users have a high level of skill, compared with 48% for men. In the case of Spain, the situation is relatively better from the point of view of gender, although there is still a great difference between the sexes: 48% of men compared with only 35% of women have achieved this high level of computer skills.
  • Finally, the proportion of women who work as computer professionals is very small (0.7%) and did not improve between 2001 and 2006, while the proportion of men has increased slightly from 2.3% to 2.6%. In the case of Spain, these proportions are 0.6% for women and 2.0% for men. Since 2001, the situation of women has not improved, while that of men has gone from 1.4% to 2%.

The most serious is that these gender differences in the computer professions are unlikely to be reduced in the future, as they are more acute among the young (under 40) than the more mature. For the whole of the EU, the differences in the percentage of computer professionals between the sexes of more than 40 years is established at between 1.8% of total male employment and 0.5% of total female employment. For the under-40s, the differences are much greater: computer technicians represent 3.5% of male employment against only 0.8% female. In the case of Spain, the differences are also worrying among the youngest, but are smaller. This is because computer employment represents percentages similar to the European both among young and older women, while it is considerably lower among men for both age groups (2.8% among the youngest and 1% among the oldest).

The Second Digital Divide for Gender Equality

The relevance of the first digital divide or gap is particularly related to the quality of Internet access. But technical availability and quality are a necessary condition, although not enough, for access. Access to Internet is a social phenomenon and its social conditions are important. Among them, the most significant is the ability to use technologies, which we have called digital literacy or digital fluency, which form part of the cuts of line of the second digital divide. Korupp and Szydlik (2005) have established that there are three types of factors that affect the use of the computer and Internet in the home by individuals:

  • Human capital, which includes not only formal education, but also the use of the computer and Internet in the workplace.
  • The family context, which embraces not only income at home, but its composition and especially the presence of minors.
  • The social context, which involves distinct factors (generational, ethnic, regional) among which the most important is gender.

The statistics show that there is a positive relation between a person’s human capital and their private use of the computer and Internet. The gender divide persists, however, beyond education levels. We have seen before how among the young the gender divide is only partially weakened. Now we will see that the effect of the education level does not reduce the gender divide either. In Spain, for example, among the user population with high level education (graduates and professionally trained) the gender divide between people who use Internet daily is 20 points.

Human capital, as stated earlier, also involves experience in the use of computers and Internet in the workplace, which is a key element as an initial route of access and to a large extent equally determines the patterns of use and skills in relation to these technologies. Gender inequalities in the labour market are important from this point of view and are manifested in various forms (Van Welsum and Montaigner, 2007):

Nobody should leave their education centre without knowing how to search for, classify, evaluate and present information related to their speciality

On the one hand, the female employment rate is considerably lower than the male. For the whole of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, the male employment rate is above 70% and the female below 60% (in Spain, the female employment rate is around 50% and the male above 70%). On the other, female employment is concentrated in activities less relevant in terms of computer technology or access to Internet. In occupations more related to computers, women represent high percentages (above 50%) in less qualified jobs (operators, database administrators) and below 10% in the more qualified (computer and telecommunications engineers).

In conclusion, the “flexible” woman adapts very well to a service economy through Internet but finds subordinate employment. Women are concentrated in education jobs and others which are knowledge intensive but their presence is mostly in office jobs and rarely in professions of high technology and Internet.

In terms of the family context, not only is the family income important – which without doubt affects the possibilities of possessing a computer and an Internet connection at home – but the presence of minors in the home is also decisive, as this is an incentive for acquiring a computer and Internet access (Brynin, Raban and Soffer, 2004). Parents want their children to learn and also want to share with them and know what they are doing on the Internet. It seems, however, that from women’s point of view the availability of a computer and Internet connection at home is negatively compensated by lack of time to use them, owing, precisely, to the presence of minors, especially when they are very small (Liff and Shepherd, 2004). The social context is determinant from various points of view: first, the use (experience, frequency, intensity, range of uses); second, perceived or real skills; lastly, it is very important to observe whether men and women are in an environment equally favourable to computer and Internet use or some are more comfortable than others. In short, it is a question of appreciating if the changes in the individual patterns of activity challenge or, rather, strengthen stereotypes in respect to the two sexes.

It seems that there are reasons to be optimistic because in all countries the number of female users is rising. New technologies can contribute to improving the position of women in the labour market. Their communication skills, as well as their higher formal education levels, are in demand, and this may increase the contracting of women. Telecommuting and telemarketing seem like appropriate alternatives for women who need to combine employment with family responsibilities. Despite this, women are still relegated to determined branches of activity and occupations, while men dominate the strategic areas of education, research and employment more related with ICTs.

These gender differences in the computer professions are unlikely to be reduced in the future, as they are more acute among the young than the more mature

In terms of Internet uses, both in Spain and the EU or the other countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, women and men similarly use everything related to communication (e-mail, chats, etc.). Men, however, tend towards the “most technological” (downloading software, music and films) and women towards the “most functional” (education, health, public services). However, it would be a mistake to confuse the increase in the number of female users with the disappearance of the digital divide. The number of women who use computers and Internet on an elemental level is rising, but the gender digital divide is clear in terms of skills (digital literacy). Earlier we mentioned the EU data for 25 member states on this issue, and the importance of gender differences even among the youngest (16-24 years) was demonstrated. Education level does not reduce the size and intensity of this gender divide but rather accentuates it. If in relation to the most simple and frequent skills (copying files, cutting and pasting) the differences between one sex and the other are small, in the most advanced (installing devices or writing programs) women with higher education (graduates or professionally trained) are between 20 and 30 points behind men with the same level of education.

This problematic issue has concerned the literature and research for a long time and is related with other important factors such as the stagnation, even reduction, of the percentage of women who take technological courses (computer technology and engineering). It seems as if technology were a world of men, while women would be prisoners of a kind of technophobia. What the research shows us (Spertus, 1991; AAUW Educational Foundation, 2000; Artal et al, 2000; Margolis and Fisher, 2002; Millar and Jagger, 2001) is that patriarchal habits persist in the family, school and mass media. Boys are educated to explore and conquer the world; girls, despite the advances experienced by democratic societies, are still educated to care for others.

Femininity and masculinity tend to be identified with determined attributes. If boys love computers and videogames (and it is clear that they prefer them to television), this is not inscribed in nature, but has been inculcated into them from a young age. In contrast, girls are inculcated with the responsibility and care for others. This is a long-suffering stance in which the tools (in this case computer or Internet) are used to resolve problems more than to play. This all takes place in the family and school at early ages.

The number of women who use computers and Internet on an elemental level is rising, but the gender digital divide is clear in terms of skills

Despite the differences in socialisation, school or home, girls are not necessarily less skilled in computers. The most important difference is that boys feel more comfortable with technology in general because they have more experience, while girls are more anxious and frightened about failure. There are also cases of boys who use them excessively, often because of timidity and lack of ability or desire to communicate, which leads them to take refuge in the computer or Internet and can result in isolation.

Another important problem is that families have different expectations in relation to sons and daughters, and do not encourage girls towards careers in science and engineering. Girls themselves are aware, for their part, of the labour traps that women find in these jobs and also dislike the stereotype of being a swot, weird and unfeminine. In the classroom, the expectations of teachers are also distinct. Scientific education is considered more necessary for boys and this creates barriers for girls: in class they are asked less, they are given less time to answer and are interrupted more. From nursery school, success is considered masculine and, if a girl does triumph, she is not considered a champion but rather her triumph is the result of hard work. This leads to a scarcity of models of successful women in ICTs.


[1] This article was published in Castaño, Cecilia (dir.) (2008): La segunda brecha digital, Madrid, Editorial Cátedra.