Global Resources

Do digital information and communications technologies increase the voice and influence of women and girls?

Author: C. Cummings, T. O'Neil
Publisher: Overseas Development Institute [ES]
Publication Date: Mar 2015

Do digital information and communications technologies increase the voice and influence of women and girls? That is the question asked of this Overseas Development Institute’s literature review, part of a two-year Learning and Evidence Project on Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making project. Specifically, the review sets out to collate and examine the global evidence on whether women and girls’ use of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) increases their voice and participation in public life, and if so, whether women and girls’ use of digital ICTs then increases their influence over decisions that affect their lives?

The review begins with some common assumptions and definitions, and defines digital ICTs as communication through computer-based systems, such as social media, peer-to-peer sharing, and interactive websites. It summarises the evidence base, and discusses emergent themes. The review then presents a more in-depth look at the evidence for digital ICTs ability to raise women’s voice, and beyond that, to influence decision and advance gender equality.

A number of key messages drawn from the literature review are highlighted at the beginning of report:

  • ICTs are a mirror on society; social, economic and political structures relating to gender and to class influence how women and girls access and use digital ICTs.
  • Digital ICTs can be important resources for women and girls’ empowerment, but this depends on both user and context.
  • Through learning new digital ICT skills, women and girls have been able to build self-confidence, increase their economic power and independence, and make better-informed decisions.
  • Digital ICTs enable women to communicate with peers online, to exchange information and build solidarity and to lobby decision-makers.
  • Unfortunately, there is only limited evidence that women’s individual or collective voice, enabled by digital ICTs, influences government policy and actions.
  • Women’s access to and use of digital ICTs can challenge gender-based power relations. However, women should be aware that this can provoke a backlash, including in ways that increase women and girls’ insecurity and subordination. 
  • The digital divide means that even if more women use digital ICTs, gender- and class-based inequalities can still increase overall.

Finally, eight recommendations for designers of digital ICT programmes supporting women and girls’ power, voice, and influence are presented. These include that:

  • In order to empower women, digital ICT programmes must address gender- and class-based barriers to women’s access.
  • It is important to distinguish between women’s active and passive use of digital ICTs, and to ensure women have the skills to make the best use of resources once they do have access.
  • Increased access to digital ICTs for women alone is not directly correlated with subsequent collective action; this goal requires additional, explicit support in programmes.
  • More research is needed on when and how digital ICTs contribute to women’s mobilisation around particular issues in ways that are effective in enabling them to influence decision-makers.
  • Whether e-government empowers women in practice depends on how activities and tools are designed and implemented and, crucially, whether women are able to actively use them.
  • Programmes need to consider whether digital ICTs could increase women’s insecurity and/or risk of violence.
  • Laws and policy governing internet use must be gender-aware and should protect users from violence and harassment
  • Sex-disaggregated data based on relevant standardised indicators are required to raise the quality of research into women’s use of digital ICTs.