Nancy Hafkin: Knowledge Divide Grows In Key Economies

January 3, 2013

The global ubiquity of cell phones has given us the false sense that information technology is universally accessible, but Internet Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Hafkin and research partner Sophia Huyer have found that nothing could be further from the truth. In the first of a three-part blog series, guest contributor Hafkin explores a growing gender knowledge divide.


by Guest Contributor Nancy Hafkin

When the term digital divide first appeared in the mid nineties, it was used to describe divides in access to information technology on ethnic, racial, and geographic lines in the U.S.[1]  From the US the concept of the digital divide spread to the divide between developed and developing countries.

The awareness of a global digital gender divide didn’t come until several years after the concept first emerged. Even after it was raised as an area of concern, it was very hard to find any reliable evidence of its existence, outside of the national statistics offices of highly developed countries.  The United Nations International Telecommunication Union, the global go-to source for information technology and telecommunications statistics, didn’t publish any sex-disaggregated statistics on Internet users until 2003.  Even today, the ITU’s published data on female Internet users is still very sparse, with statistics only from Senegal among some 40 sub-Saharan African countries, and no data on female users from China and India, or any other low-income Asian country. (Of course ITU only publishes the data that countries supply, so the problem rests with national statistical offices.)

Now, with the ubiquity of cell phones, access to information technology is almost taken for granted globally. There is less talk of a digital divide and more of knowledge divides, looking more at science, technology and innovation (frequently referred to by the acronym STI) as the silver bullet to make both individuals and nations competitive in a global knowledge society.

My own concern for the last decade or so has been on the global gender divide, first in information technology and then more broadly on gender in the knowledge society. My research partner Sophia Huyer, Executive Director of Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT), and I have developed the Gender in the Knowledge Society Framework to measure women’s readiness for and participation in the global knowledge society. The framework looks at information technology use and access as well as a myriad of other factors that influence the extent to which women can and do play equal roles with men in the 21st century knowledge-based world.

The aim of the framework is to see whether girls and women in individual countries have what is necessary to become part of knowledge society and to what extent they are actually participating in it.  Recently Sophia and I completed directing seven studies that applied the GEKS Framework to Brazil, India, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, South Africa, the United States, and the European Union. The results, expressed as Scorecards, show that much more than skills and education are necessary for women to be equal participants with men in the knowledge society.

Among the countries/areas studied, the European Union came out first overall, and first or second in every dimension of preparing women for and participating in the knowledge society except opportunity and capability (including health, social and economic status, access to resources, women’s ability to plan and control their own lives and influence the lives of other, gender-aware policy, and the participation of women in science and technology studies, labor force and decision making).

The United States was second overall, ranking first among countries studied on the educational levels of women and their positions in private sector and science decision-making. At the same time, it came out at the bottom of the studies in enabling policy environment and near the bottom in women’s health, agency (their ability to control their lives and influence those of others), and social status. The lack of supportive public policies for women is evident when you see that the US, of the countries surveyed, was the only one without national policy or legislation on equal rights for women and the only one which has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Only one other country besides the US has no national policy on childcare.  In the knowledge-based labor force, the US ranked 26 out of 30 developed countries in employment growth for female college graduates.

Brazil ranked first in overall participation of women in all aspects of science, technology and innovation and participation in the knowledge economy, largely as a result of a highly supportive policy environment and effective policy implementation, and second (to South Korea) in women’s health and opportunity and capability. Brazil was particularly strong in the education of women in science and technology and the numbers of women in the information technology workforce and in administrative and managerial positions.

South Africa was the leader of women in the public arena, with the highest numbers of elected and appointed officials. Forty-five percent of the members of parliament are women. South Africa also had the largest number of women ministers and deputy ministers, as a result of both government policy and quotas. But South Africa’s overall status was brought down by a poor health ranking (among the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS among women) and racial inequalities.

Those countries not doing so well on women and the knowledge society were the Republic of Korea and India. South Korea ranked first in health and life expectancy, but was last in women’s economic status and second to last overall.  It had relatively high numbers of females studying science and technology, but their degrees did not carry over to achieving public office or working in the private sector. It is an interesting case of a lack of correlation between a country’s GDP and gender equity.

India ranked lowest overall among the countries surveyed largely as a result of women’s low social and educational status in a highly populous country, despite an excellent supportive policy environment.  While its policy environment is very positive and has been in place for many years, implementation and funding need to improve greatly before Indian women can equally benefit from its innovation advantage. There are definite signs of progress, though, as seen in its achievement of universal primary education enrollment.  However, its enormous population works against having a rate of change as rapid as a country such as Brazil.

The status of Indonesia was not clear as a result of a paucity of available statistics on the situation of women.  Of the countries in this study, Indonesia collects the least sex-disaggregated data, with data unavailable for many of the indicators. Its positive policy environment, though, gives it a strong potential for a positive outcome for women that would be clearer if supporting data were available.


[1] The term digital divide first came into use following the US Department of Commerce’s release of the report Falling Through the Net (1995) that identified gaps based on race, ethnicity, and geographical location between information haves and have-nots in the United States.

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