New research has found that low and lower-middle income countries have lost an estimated $1-trillion in GDP in the last 10 years because of barriers preventing women from accessing the Internet and participating online.

The study, conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), measures how the digital gender gap — the difference between the number of women and men who can access the internet — has affected economic output across 32 countries.

The report estimates that in 2020, the digital gender gap cost these economies a total of $126-billion. This represents a loss of more than $24-billion in tax revenues, funds that could be used to invest in education, health, and infrastructure programs.

These findings underline an urgent need to tackle barriers to digital access so that everyone is able to participate in the digital economy. Globally, men are 21% more likely to be online than women, rising to 52% in Least Developed Countries.

In the 32 countries studied, the gender gap has barely improved since 2011, dropping just half a percentage point from 30,9% to 30,4%.

Few governments have implemented specific policies designed to remove a range of barriers that prevent women from using the internet. These barriers include the affordability of data and devices, gaps in education and digital skills, social pressures discouraging women using the internet, and fears about online privacy, safety, and security.

Catherine Adeya, director of research at the Web Foundation, comments: “Closing the digital gender gap is not just a moral cause, it is also an economic imperative. As the internet becomes a more potent enabler for education, business, and community mobilisation, a failure to deliver access for all means failing to realise everyone’s potential to contribute.

“Governments that enable women to fully participate in the digital revolution will unlock a wealth of creativity and productivity.”

The report estimates that closing the digital gender gap would add an estimated $524-billion in economic activity over the next five years. By investing to enable more women to use the internet and participate in the digital economy, governments have a substantial opportunity to generate economic growth.

In focus groups and interviews commissioned for the report, women talked about the ways internet access opened up opportunities. One participant talked about how she was able to expand her floriculture business nationally, using the internet to reach customers beyond her community.

Idjatou Diallo, a restauranteur in Côte d’Ivoire, was able to save her restaurant during the Covid-19 pandemic by selling food online.

In India, career coach Swati Lodh Kundu used the internet to find clients in other countries and continents to increase her income.

Launching the report at the 2021 Africa Summit for Women and Girls in Technology, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, founder and the Umlambo Foundation and former executive director of UN Women said: “In 2015 the world agreed on 17 ambitious global goals to build a better future.

“Whether on health, climate or the economy, we will not meet these goals until we tackle gender inequality. And we will not achieve gender equality until we eliminate this digital gap that keeps so many women offline and away from the opportunities the internet provides. The time for governments to act is now.”

To promote a more inclusive digital economy, the report encourages governments to look holistically at the barriers that impede women’s and girls’ access to the internet. It urges them to develop comprehensive broadband strategies that include infrastructure investment, transparent policy targets, and programmes to deliver digital skills and literacy training, promote women’s and girls’ rights, and address safety and privacy concerns.

Boutheina Guermazi, director of digital development at the World Bank and A4AI advisory council member said: “This report reveals just how expensive gender inequality is for all of us.

“Investing in a more inclusive digital future gives leaders a tremendous opportunity to promote economic growth while creating healthier societies by addressing inequalities in education and earning power.

“For governments looking to build a resilient economy as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans, closing the digital gender gap should be one of the top priorities.”