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Getting women online will help boost GDP, UN says

Many countries, including Thailand, urgently need to encourage more female involvement in ICT, as an increase in women broadband users would help boost national economies, according to a UN report.

Even in developed economies, the report says, women now account for fewer than 20 per cent of ICT specialists - and this 'gender gap' comes at a cost.

Research highlighted in the report indicates that, in developing countries, every 10 per cent increase in access to broadband translates to a 1.38 per cent growth in gross domestic product (GDP). That means that bringing an additional 600 million women and girls online could boost global GDP by as much as US$18 billion.

The UN Broadband Commission report entitled 'Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the inclusion of women & girls in the information society' reveals that around the world, women are coming online later and more slowly than men.

Of the world's 2.8 billion Internet users, 1.3 billion are women, compared with 1.5 billion men. The gap between male and female Internet users - now 16 per cent in the developing world and 2 per cent in the developed world - could grow to 350 million within the next three years if action is not taken.

"Promoting women's access to ICT - and particularly broadband - should be central to the post-2015 global development agenda," said Dr Hamadoun I. Toure, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) secretary-general and co-vice chair of the Broadband Commission.

"The mobile miracle has demonstrated the power of ICT in driving social and economic growth, but this important new report reveals a worrying gender gap in access. We need to make sure that all people - and most crucially today's younger generation - have equitable access to ICT. I believe it is in the interest of every government to urgently strive to redress this imbalance."

The report also emphasises the importance of encouraging more girls to pursue ICT careers. By 2015, it is estimated that 90 per cent of formal employment across all sectors will require ICT skills and those with ICT skills can earn as high salaries as doctors or lawyers. Yet, even in developed economies, women now account for fewer than 20 per cent of ICT specialists.

Only 14 per cent of countries had policies in place for women in their national broadband plans. Bangladesh, Finland, India, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States all include references to gender in their plan. A large number of Asian, European and Latin American countries did not, as well as Australia and Canada. Thailand is among the second camp.

The commission urged those countries to devise strategies with clear goals, and to put in place measurement systems and practices to ensure gender equality is achieved. Policy needs to cover universal access, regulatory frameworks, privacy and security, licensing, spectrum allocation, infrastructure, ICT industry development and labour issues, and draw on available expertise, frameworks and tools that provide relevant guidelines.

Strategies should include women’s ICT skills and women's role in decision making in the government and private sector level. An increase in relevant and interesting content for women online is also highlighted. Internet costs are also highlighted as one of the barriers. According to ITU, in sub-Saharan Africa, fixed-broadband Internet service costs more than 100 per cent of average monthly income and mobile broadband costs over 50 per cent.

ITU's 'Girls in ICT Day' is one of the efforts to boost female Internet users. Established in 2010, it aims to raise awareness among school-age girls of the prospects a career in ICT can offer. This year, over 130 countries held Girls in ICT Day events, supported by partners including Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, ICT Qatar, Microsoft, the European Commission and many more.

To help older women get online and take advantage of new technologies, ITU also has a partnership with Telecentre.org which is on track to train one million women in ICT skills by the end of this year.


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