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Globally, men have a much easier time accessing the Internet than women, according to a new report issued by the United Nations' Broadband Commission Working Group.
The report [PDF] estimates that more than 200 million more men have access to the Internet than women, particularly in countries where Internet access is relatively new and still difficult to come by. Citing statistics from the ITU World Telecommunications/ICT Indicators database, the report says 41% of men worldwide are connected to the Internet, compared to 37% of women. In what is defined as the "developed world," or countries with wide-reaching access to the Internet, 80% of men are online, compared 74% of women. In the "developing world," those figures drop to 33% of all men and just 29% of women.
In the developing world, the report claims that 16% fewer women use the Internet than men, whereas just 2% fewer women are online in the developed world.
The gender gap in Internet services is particularly noticeable in major Arab countries, according to the report. Statistics from the Arab Advisors Group showed that higher percentages of men in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan use ecommerce services than women. In Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, no fewer than 62% of men use smartphones. Among those same countries, Morocco's 38% of females using smartphones is the highest rate, according to the report.
Several factors contribute to the online gender gap. Specifically, the report mentions the online harassment and threats frequently aimed towards women. In July, Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist heading up the campaign to make British author Jane Austen the face of England's £10 note, was bombarded with abusive comments and rape threats via Twitter. On Facebook, sexism had become such a pervasive issue that earlier this year the company announced new efforts to crack down specifically on content that "targets women with images and content that threatens or incites gender-based violence or hate."
Similarly, the report also cites studies showing "some early indications that cyberbullying might vary by gender," and research indicating discrepancies in representations of men and women in popular culture.
By working through these issues and facilitating Internet access, the UN predicts that a larger presence of women online could have a drastic global economic impact.
"The World Bank (2009) estimates that every 10% increase in access to broadband results in 1.38% growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for developing countries," the report says. "Bringing women online can boost GDP -- Intel (2013) estimates that bringing 600 million additional women and girls online could boost global GDP by up to US$13-18 billion."
The report highlights some of the ongoing work to improve access to Internet services for women, which focuses primarily on putting Internet-enabled mobile phones in their hands. However, it also calls for new policies to make Internet access more affordable and easier to use, while making the content more localized and relevant for new users in developing markets.
Closing the Internet gender gap also poses many new business opportunities. A report by the GSMA/Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which was cited in the UN's document, says the mobile industry is missing out on 300 million users and $13 billion in revenues, as women worldwide are an estimated 21% less likely to own a mobile phone.
Some major tech companies have already moved forward with plans to expand the Internet globally, most notably with Internet.org, the nonprofit organization run by Facebook, Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera and MediaTek. Last week, the group released a document with a rough outline of the technology that could help accomplish its goal, which included a Facebook app for feature phones called "Facebook for Every Phone."