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Are women the next emerging market?

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To those of us living in fully developed economies, the idea of an emerging market is usually defined by rapid national growth, a burgeoning middle class, and new opportunities in new industries, but still some considerable residue of the conditions that once branded these countries as “under-developed”.

Which is why you might it find surprising to learn that one of the most populous emerging markets isn’t a country at all, but a gender. Last weekend, the Broadband Commission – the global initiative to promote digital connectivity which is backed by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union and member companies including Alcatel-Lucent – published a new report on the so-called digital divide, and estimates that there are 200 million fewer women with access to the Internet than men, a gap, the Commission warns, could grow to 350 million within the next three years.

Gabrielle Gauthey at the 8th Broadband Commission for Digital Development Meeting, New York, 21st September 2013

The report, Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing The Inclusion of Women & Girls In The Information Society, makes the stark claim – based on extensive research by UN agencies, Commission members, governments and business partners – that women are getting online later in life and more slowly than men. And that, says the Commission, makes women the most promising emerging market of all – if the right measures are taken to help it develop.

Today there are approximately 2.8 billion people around the world with access to the Internet – a figure that still falls short of the world’s total population of seven billion, but of that number, 1.5 billion Internet users are male and 1.3 billion are female. That 200 million shortfall becomes more dramatic when location is taken into account. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gender gap is quite narrow in developed countries, but widens significantly in the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa there are twice as many men online as women.

With smartphone and even basic-feature phone ownership continuing to grow in emerging countries – with 4G LTE services now appearing in Africa, Latin America and Asia – women are still lagging behind men in owning any kind of mobile phone. According to the Commission’s report, women are, on average, 21% less likely to own a mobile phone the further into developing countries you examine.

This, the Commission says, represents a mobile gender gap of 300 million potential subscribers to mobile services – the equivalent of $13 billion in revenues, not to mention the potential income generated from device manufacturers, network operators and application developers. On top of that, the Commission’s research found that, in emerging markets, every 10% increase in broadband access translates to GDP growth of 1.38%, and that bringing an additional 600 million women and girls online could boost the world economy by a further $18 billion.

However, the gap is not just about the missed business opportunity. It is also about the missed opportunities for education, economic and social development that the digital gender divide represents. The Commission estimates that within the next two years, 90% of all formal employment opportunities will require information and communications technology skills. Furthermore, providing greater access to ICT tools will boost the number of women coming into the ICT industry, gaining academic qualifications in ICT that would put them on par with the medical and legal professions. Even in the developed world, today, women account for fewer than 20% of ICT specialists.

“The Broadband Commission believes very strongly that putting ICT technology in the hands of women is one of the most important measures for global human development,” says Gabrielle Gauthey, Alcatel-Lucent’s Vice-President of Public Affairs, who represented the company at the New York launch of the Commission’s report.

“We’re very familiar with the role of fixed and mobile broadband access in the developed world – we live with these tools 24/7 without even thinking about them,” Gabrielle adds. “But in many parts of the world, the launch of the new iPhone, or a new tablet device, or the development of a new access technology means nothing to a significant proportion of some communities – their women. These women are being left behind educationally, economically and socially by the lack of access, and it is something that society should – and can – address.”

Gabrielle’s view is echoed by that of Dr. Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU and Vice-Chair of the Broadband Commission, who believes that promoting access for women to information and communications technologies – especially broadband – should be central to the mid-term global development agenda. “The mobile miracle,” he says, “has demonstrated the power of ICTs in driving social and economic growth, but this important new report [from the Broadband Commission] reveals a worrying ‘gender gap’ in access. We need to make sure all people – and most crucially today’s younger generation – have access to ICTs.”

The Broadband Commission’s report on the ICT gender gap has been launched alongside the organization’s latest State Of Broadband report, which revealed that mobile broadband access is the fastest growing technology in human history, growing at a rate of 30% annually, and likely outstrip fixed broadband connections by three-to-one by the end of this year.

The report highlights the global powerhouses of broadband connectivity – such as South Korea, where 97% of households have broadband access. Overall, there are now more than 70 countries where more than 50% of the population is online, with eight of the Top 10 in Europe.

The report, though, also demonstrates the widening overall gap in connectivity – regardless of gender. “Over 90% of people in the world’s 49 least developed countries remain totally unconnected,” says Dr. Touré. “Technology, combine with relevant content and services can help us bridge urgent development gaps in areas like health, education, environmental management and gender empowerment”.

The State Of Broadband report also, for the first time in the report’s history, examines a new target for digital gender equality. “The message from the Broadband Commission membership, as well as the United Nations and its agencies, is loud and clear,” says Gabrielle Gauthey. “It’s a global imperative to increase digital access to all, male and female, young and old. There are measurable opportunities for the ICT-disenfranchised in emerging markets to make a step up by giving them connectivity, but it takes action and initiative by those in positions of leadership to make it happen, and bring the advantages of digital access to everyone.”

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Photos of the full meeting of the Commission can be viewed and downloaded from Flickr at: http://bit.ly/18WPPij

Photos from the meeting of the Working Group on Gender can be viewed and downloaded at: http://bit.ly/1gyFUCo

Broadcast-quality footage can be previewed and downloaded from ITU’s Virtual Video Newsroom at: www.itu.int/en/newsroom/Pages/videos.aspx

Video can be viewed on ITU’s YouTube Channel at: http://bit.ly/Z37E8A

A full copy of the report can be downloaded at: www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/bb-annualreport2013.pdf

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