This blog is part of the WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) Blog Series: Introducing Strategies for Closing the Gender Digital Divide. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Women Connect Challenge is a global call for solutions to improve women’s participation in everyday life by meaningfully changing the ways women access and use technology. In the first round, WCC awarded nine grants to organizations working to identify and change the social and economic circumstances that keep women offline and under-empowered. Through close partnership with local awardee teams and community members, WCC has identified five proven strategies for closing the gender digital divide and increasing women’s empowerment. This blog explores one strategy at length.

Strategy 3 - Viamo.jpgWCC Grantee Viamo works to bridge the gender digital divide and bring vital tools and information to women in Pakistan. Photo: Viamo.

“I’m not smart enough to do this… I’ll break it… I’m too dumb to use a phone… It’s not for me.”

Development practitioners and researchers presenting in the “WomenConnect Challenge Steps to Success” webinar series explained that self-defeating statements such as these are commonplace when women are invited to use digital technologies for the first time.

“Bear in mind that this is not just a developing country problem,” said panelist Dr. Araba Sey, the Principal Researcher for Research ICT Africa. “Our research in Europe and North America also shows that, compared to boys and men, women and girls have lower self-efficacy or confidence in their digital skills.”

Across the world, many women and girls believe themselves incapable or not smart enough to use technology. This chronic lack of confidence is usually instilled by persistent gender stereotypes and negative messaging that position women as inferior to men, including when it comes to all things digital. This internalized sense of incapacity that women experience becomes an additional barrier to women’s access to digital technologies and everything they have to offer.

“The confidence challenges in women, I would like to argue, may not necessarily be caused just by lack of skills but by an environment permeated with these perceptions that diminish their self-concept,” explained Sey. “For women, these perceptions contribute to a vicious cycle that’s fueling a sense of inadequacy, perceptions of non-relevance of the internet, and disincentivizing its use.”

USAID has found that targeted programming can help women address these internalized gender stereotypes and empower them to embrace the digital world more substantially. To address the need for bolstering confidence in technology access and use, WCC grantee Viamo leveraged its free, on-demand information platform called the 3-2-1 Service, which provides interactive, educational content in local languages via mobile phone. As a popular and trusted information and news source already, Viamo decided to build on the platform’s existing success and integrate interactive voice response (IVR) and create new digital literacy and livelihoods content for users in Tanzania and Pakistan. Viamo’s tailored digital literacy content helped build female users’ confidence by asking questions as simple and basic as “what is the internet?”, enabling users to gradually build their digital comprehension and benefit from a wider range of 3-2-1 content.

“To tackle the gender digital divide… we specifically aimed to target three barriers to women’s usage of mobile phones, which were: awareness of mobile internet, low digital literacy, and the perception that mobile internet is not relevant to the lives of women,” described Hannah Metcalfe, Viamo’s Country Director in Tanzania. “And we did all of this while providing women with valuable life-saving information,” she added.

Popular 3-2-1 content includes a range of topics, such as health, agriculture, family planning, education, and financial literacy. Viamo sought out to augment its content library with digital literacy topics particularly relevant for their female listeners, including information on phone types, internet connection, safety and cyber laws, digital financial services, cost of data, and battery life.

“It’s stunning how many women think they are too dumb to use a mobile phone or the internet. I always hear concerns that they will break it or do something wrong,” remarked Revi Sterling, Director of the WCC. “Programs like the digital literacy and technology explanations in the 3-2-1 program give women that confidence to understand that they absolutely can use digital tools safely and effectively,” she continued. “It’s necessary to remove the fear of the unknown and help nudge women into making the decision to use that app or service.”

To ensure the key messaging would be as relevant and useful to their target audience as possible, Viamo hosted “digital boot camps” for women to review and discuss digital literacy topics as a group. Findings from the boot camps showed that almost half of the women were dependent on their partners to do mobile money transactions, saying they didn’t feel confident enough to perform the transactions alone. “But their perceptions changed after the camps,” said Metcalfe. “Most of them stated that they [would] be monitoring their own mobile money accounts moving forward.”

One boot camp participant said, “I sell some fabrics and vitenge, but I use my husband’s phone to receive payment from my customers. Because I don’t have enough knowledge on how it works, and sometimes it becomes difficult to get my money on time because my husband is the one managing it. But from now on I will be telling [customers] to send the payment direct to my phone, because I [now] understand how to use it. And I will be getting my money on time, and I will save it accordingly,” she declared proudly. In fact, many 3-2-1 users later reported similar experiences of not just having an increased awareness of digital opportunities but also of having discovered a newfound courage to engage digitally without relying on anyone else.

“Simply having access, just being connected isn’t what’s empowering,” reflected panelist Dr. Laura Hosman, founder of the SolarSPELL Initiative. Speaking about her work and SolarSPELL’s strategies for cultivating confidence in women, Hosman continued: “It takes a mindset change. A behavior change, capabilities change, skill building… These are what contribute to self-confidence and self-efficacy.”

Because they were able to facilitate building up skills and confidence by way of their digital literacy content, Viamo also witnessed increased access of other content through 3-2-1, including crucial information about health and family planning. Female users who listened to the digital literacy content on 3-2-1 were found to be more likely than other users to listen to additional pieces of information. “Although not a formal study, this indicates that teaching digital literacy skills increases a user’s likelihood of seeking out information using phones,” wrote Sterling and her USAID colleagues Thomas Koutsky and Lauren Grubbs in their recently published research paper about WCC programming and the gender digital divide.

Viamo’s digital literacy content demonstrates that when women have both the requisite access and sufficient confidence, they seek out self-training and self-education resources, resulting in a ripple effect in everything from improving health outcomes to inspiring entrepreneurial endeavors. Sey reminded webinar attendees that solutions to closing the gender digital divide must “[address] the deeper psychological damage that has been done to women’s self-worth over time.” To be effective, digital development programming must go beyond providing hardware and ensuring connectivity and not overlook the underlying, and in many cases internalized, social norms and stereotypes that shape women’s perception of the digital world—and their place in it.

You can find previous blogs from this series below:

WomenConnect Challenge Blog Series: Introducing Strategies for Closing the Gender Digital Divide

WomenConnect Challenge Blog Series: Strategy 1 — Changing Social Norms and Cultural Perceptions

WomenConnect Challenge Blog Series: Strategy 2—Creating Economic Opportunities