The Global Digital Divide and Its Effect on Women Scientists Worldwide


First published in AWIS Magazine Volume 29, issue 4 (Fall 2000)

The Internet is now an essential tool for scientific research. With it, we can create virtual research communities where geographically disparate researchers can collaborate and share information. Email, newsgroups, digital libraries, and research websites give us easy access to scientific research and results. Websites and FTP servers allow simple distribution of scientific software and data sets. Computational Grid abstractions are being built on top of parts of the Internet in the United States and Europe, enabling scientists to share hardware and software resources, data, and instruments that are connected to the Internet but managed by different organizations; a scientist with Grid access can use a particular instrument or computer not locally available if the device is part of the Grid. And for women scientists in particular, online organizations, publications, and mailing lists create a virtual community of our female peers that we may not have locally.

The only requirement for membership in these virtual communities is Internet access. In the U.S., we discuss the Digital Divide between populations of rich and poor, whites and racial minorities, urban and rural residents, and men and women. However, a much larger Digital Divide exists between wealthy western countries where Internet access is readily available and developing countries with little or no access to the Internet. North America has 5% of the world's population and 50% of the world's Internet users, whereas South Asia has 20% of the world's population and less than 1% of the world's Internet users. 1 Many African countries have Internet access only in the capital city; even in South Africa, the best-connected African country, there is only one Internet connection for 1,000 people at the university level. 1 A report to the International Development Research Centre describes some of the problems caused by this kind of limited access to Internet resources:

"[A woman] researcher at a research institute in Dakar [Senegal] does not have actual email access, even though the University has an account. The reason: there is one account for the entire Institute, which is placed in the computer centre. To send and retrieve messages, the researcher has to physically bring a copy of the message on paper to the centre, and hand it over to the male technician for transmission. Similarly, with reception of messages. Therefore convenience of transmission is lost, as is privacy. 2

Although in some countries it is the government that prohibits Internet access, most of the lack of connectivity is due to economic factors. Other factors that limit participation in these "global research communities" are language, social, political, and educational barriers. Within all countries there are varying degrees of the Digital Divide between the educated and illiterate, male and female, rich and poor, and urban and rural populations; "the typical Internet user worldwide is male, under 35 years old, with a college education and high income, urban-based, and English-speaking. 1

Gender plays a significant role in access to the Internet. Even in countries where males and females are given equal access to education and have similar literacy rates, women use the Internet significantly less than men. In the United States, women make up only 38% of Internet users, and in many other countries the percentage is much lower (e.g., 4% in the Arab States and 7% in China). 1 Much of this can be attributed to differences in social and cultural expectations for women, which, combined with economic factors, result in different educational and vocational opportunities afforded to men and women. The result is that women scientists from developing countries tend to be more isolated both from their peers and from the larger scientific community, and the Internet technology that promises to bridge these geographical boundaries is often not available to them.

Currently, there are many international and private organizations with programs designed to improve Internet connectivity in developing countries. These include the United Nation's Sustainable Development Networking Program, the Information for Development Program of the World Bank, and the International Telecommunication Union's Rural Development and Universal Access Program. There are also several organizations working to aid and support women scientists from developing countries. The Third World Organization for Women in Science is an international forum focused on increasing the number of women scientists in scientific leadership roles. The Women in Global Science and Technology organization supports research in gender and science issues and supports activities designed to improve the representation of women scientists worldwide.

Without a concerted effort to remove the barriers to connectivity, researchers from countries with little or no Internet access will become even more isolated from the rest of the research world. To truly achieve the promise of a "global community" for scientific researchers worldwide, the Internet must be accessible to all.


1. The United Nations Human Development Report 1999,

2. Sophia Huyer, 1997, "Supporting Women's Use of Information Technologies for Sustainable Development," submitted to the Gender and Sustainable Development Unit, International Development Research Centre, Canada, February 1997.

Relevant Web sites

For more information about international organizations for women in science, global connectivity projects and organizations, and articles about the global Digital Divide visit the following Web sites: Women in Global Science and Technology:

Third World Organization for Women in Science:

American Association for the Advancement of Science's links to international science organizations:

The United Nations Sustainable Development Networking Program:

World Bank's Information for Development Program:

International Telecommunication Union's Rural Development and Universal Access Program:

Global Information Infrastructure Commission:

The Global Internet Project:

Olu Oguibe, "Forsaken Geographies Cyberspace and the New World 'Other'," The 5th International Cyberspace Conference, Madrid, June 1996:

"Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa," edited by Eva M. Rathgeber and Edith Ofwona Adera, published by the International Development Research Centre, 2000:

Papers from the Eighth International Conference of the Gender and Science and Technology Association, Ahmedabad, India, 1996:

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