In an increasingly digitalized world, full and equal participation in society depends on modern technologies. From work and education to healthcare and staying connected with loved ones, nearly every aspect of daily life has to some degree gone “online”. The critical role of digital technologies in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 accelerated this trend. Still, the digital transformation is not universal. Around the world, access to and use of digital technologies varies by gender, age, education, region, and income. This digital divide threatens to exacerbate existing inequalities and generate new ones within and across countries.
In the UNECE region, Internet use is widespread. Eighty-five per cent of individuals aged 16 to 74 use the Internet weekly. More than 90 per cent of adults in the region own a mobile phone. While these numbers suggest a digitally connected population, they mask persisting and intersecting disparities by age and gender that must be addressed to ensure equal inclusion in economic, social, and civic life.
Older women risk being left behind
Older persons—and particularly older women—risk being left behind in the region’s digital transformation. Only 67 per cent of individuals aged 55 to 74 in the UNECE region use the Internet weekly, compared to more than 90 per cent of those aged 16 to 54. The region is close to achieving gender parity in Internet use among younger people, but a digital gender divide exists for those aged 55 to 74, with fewer women than men in this age group logging on. When it comes to digital skills, older women are further behind. In countries in the European Union, only half as many women aged 55 to 74 have basic or above basic digital skills when compared to men and women in younger age groups. These generation and gender gaps are likely to be even more pronounced for those aged 75 and older, a population for which comprehensive data on this and many other topics are often unavailable.
Globally, women and girls of all ages are less likely to access and use digital technologies. On International Women’s Day and during this week’s 67th Commission on the Status of Women, the global community reflects on the impact of the digital gender gap on economic and social inequalities and the role of technology in achieving gender equality. In the UNECE region, women are at a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion than men across all age groups, and the gender gap is largest among older persons. Inequality in older age is related to accumulated disadvantages in the labour market throughout the lifespan. One way to prevent and address these gender disparities is to promote technology skills and access for women of all ages. UNECE member States are taking concrete policy actions to bridge the gender digital divide across the life course.
UNECE member States take concrete action
In Ireland, the Women ReBOOT programme combines formal training, self-directed learning, and individual coaching to provide women with technology skills and experience to return to work after a career break. Acknowledging the key role of technology in the empowerment of women, the Women’s Economic Security Program in Ontario, Canada targets low-income women and women who have experienced violence to develop skills, knowledge and experience in information technology and other areas to find a job or start a small business.
For older persons, technology can enable a longer working life, support active ageing, mitigate social exclusion, and reduce isolation and loneliness. The 2022 Rome Ministerial Declaration calls on UNECE member States to work towards age-friendly digitalization, enhance digital skills and literacy among older persons, and ensure rights to access information and services through digital devices. In Greece, the National Action Plan on Gender Equality 2021-2025 makes this a priority with digital skills training programmes for older women designed to improve access to the labour market, digital health services, and e-commerce and banking services.
Digitalization that benefits everyone
These examples show the way forward towards addressing the digital generation and gender gaps in the region. In today’s digital society, gender equality will not be achieved without bridging the digital divide. With much to gain, older women and men should not be forgotten in efforts towards inclusive digitalization. Technology is a tool to promote gender equality, enhance economic opportunities, and improve social and political participation at all ages, but only if digitalization benefits everyone.