How social norms deepen the digital gender divide

As a parent, would you want your daughter to fall behind your son? Does its potential remain untapped? Most likely not. Yet this is the case for many adolescent girls in Bangladesh, whose parents – often unwittingly and with respect for traditional gender norms – handicap their potentials by preventing them from developing the foundational digital skills necessary to age. today.

With the advent of modern technologies, digital skills have become increasingly essential not only for realizing one’s economic and productive potential, but also for effectively navigating everyday life. Young people organically develop fundamental digital skills when they have access to a digital device and the Internet; Early access has a huge influence on familiarity and digital literacy later in life. But digital access is uneven and the gender gap in access is large. This gap starts early and continues with age. This phenomenon is likely to exacerbate socio-economic inequalities between men and women.

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While more than a quarter of rural Bangladesh boys aged 14 to 16 reported using a smartphone, only eight percent of girls did, according to a recent BIGD survey. This figure rises to 46 percent for boys and 26 percent for girls aged 17 to 20. Similar shortcomings were found in the use of the Internet.

However, quantitative measures of gender inequality in digital access do not capture the process by which this initial injustice is created by the gender difference in bargaining power and how the same difference creates other inequalities. in real access and, over time, real results. For this, we need to understand how existing gender norms come into play in the digital space and create new forms of gender inequality. In another qualitative study with class VII adolescents, BIGD researchers explored this aspect in depth; the key idea of ​​the study is discussed here.

As expected, the gender divide in digital access is not visible in high income families; both boys and girls have their own smartphones and 24-hour internet access. In contrast, very few boys and girls in low-income rural and urban areas own a smartphone or have access to the Internet. Most low-income or rural families have a common cell phone, or at best two, that teenagers can share.

Boys and girls in low-income rural and urban areas are usually allowed to use a shared device for a limited time, often supervised by an adult. But that’s where the similarity between adolescent boys and girls ends and the disparity begins. Often, adolescents take the opportunity to use the device when they are not supposed to. “Time snatched away is a concept researchers developed to describe the ways in which teens maximize their use of the shared device. The gender divide is common in licensed use, but more marked in the case of time snatch, which plays an important role in the development of their digital skills.

Boys ingeniously use a variety of social norms to lengthen the time they spend on the shared phone. Whenever a teenager gets their hands on a shared cell phone, they just go out and disappear for as long as they want; in the words of a city boy: “Whenever I’m bored of studying, I go out [with the mobile phone]. It doesn’t matter if it’s 8 p.m. or 12 p.m. My mother knows … ”Parents, especially mothers, tend to forgive this type of behavior on the part of their sons; according to one mother: “Suppose my son tells me he’s going out for a while. Then he can use the mobile; we won’t say anything, will we? We cannot make the boys stay at home. This privilege of boys to simply go out on cellphones allows them to “grab” more time than girls who are generally not allowed to go out. The girls are very aware of this sad reality; a country girl said, “Boys can go out giving lame excuses…. But girls can’t do that. Because of their mobility, boys can also buy mobile data when they need it. But girls are limited to mobile data purchased by their parents and siblings.

Unlike adolescent girls, adolescents have an active social life, thanks to the same privileges as boys. They spend time outdoors every day with friends. Their social network allows them to jointly purchase mobile data for a single phone and watch videos, play games or listen to music together.

Their mobility also allows them to use free Wi-Fi, which is increasingly available. “We use Wi-Fi most of the time,” said one boy. “In our circle of friends, there is a competition on how many Wi-Fi networks we can connect to.” Many boys, from both rural and urban areas, also talked about hacking Wi-Fi passwords and how easy it was to do it. In contrast, access to Wi-Fi for teenage girls in low-income rural and urban areas is very limited, as most do not have it at home, nor can they go out in public spaces.

Teens also use a variety of negotiation tactics to save time and the freedom to use the Internet. The study found that many boys control their mother’s cell phone password, which allows them to access the phone at their disposal, and their forgiving mothers oblige. Because boys are considered precious, sometimes they even manage to persuade their parents to buy them their own cell phones.

Thus, adolescent girls, compared to boys, are at a disadvantage to familiarize themselves with and develop the necessary skills in digital technology; in our time, this is a major inconvenience for anyone.

Behind this phenomenon lie deeply rooted social norms and attitudes towards men and women, and by extension, boys and girls. Parents are generally more forgiving of boys and harsher on girls. Boys are allowed to go out freely, but the mobility of girls is strictly prohibited. Parents expect more obedience from girls, who are more likely to accept parents’ decisions, for example, not to buy them a cell phone, rather than negotiating for it like boys do, according to the company. ‘study.

Parents were also worried about their daughters having romantic relationships. One girl describes: “My mom keeps her phone locked … She says cell phone access derails girls. There is a strong feeling among many parents about single girls using cell phones, as one parent said, “No, I won’t give it to her. If anyone has to give her a phone, it will be her husband, not me. “Parents don’t generally share the same fear for their sons.

These findings are perhaps not surprising. It is well known that in our country boys have more freedom than girls and, especially in low income and rural areas, girls’ mobility is the most restricted. The fear that girls will enter into a romantic relationship outside of marriage and the resulting restriction in their cell phone use is perhaps also common knowledge. But everyone should realize that these practices prevent girls from exploring and realizing their potential in education and employment. In the 21st century, these practices also create a digital divide between boys and girls, which, as technology continues to advance, is likely to widen the gender gap in our country. Parents of girls need to realize the importance of digital skills in the lives of their children, girls and boys.

Dr Imran Matin is Executive Director, BIGD. Lopita Haque is a researcher, BIGD. Nusat Jahan is Knowledge Management Officer, BIGD.

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