12/5/23 · Culture

What does the digital gender divide entail?

A UOC research study has shown that digital inclusion policies must be redefined in order to end digital inequalities

The study shows how gender and social class inequalities in real life are replicated in people's use of the internet
mujeres con ordenadores portátiles

Immigrant women feel that making their applications online protects them from the direct exclusion (photo: Christina @ wocintechchat.com / unsplash.com)

The central role of digitization in our lives has grown exponentially in the last few years. Gender and social class inequalities in real life are often replicated and transformed in the way people use the internet. Being aware of female users' real experiences and perspectives can help design more effective digital inclusion policies.

Shedding light on this issue was the aim of the PhD thesis "La reproducción, y alguna transformación, de las desigualdades de género y clase social en internet: un análisis interseccional en mujeres usuarias de programas de inclusión social" (The replication, and some transformation, of gender and social class inequalities online. An intersectional analysis of women who use social inclusion programmes). The thesis is a study by Lídia Arroyo, PhD in Society, Technology and Culture and researcher in the Gender and ICT (GenTIC) group at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3).

Its aim was to understand how women who use digital inclusion programmes take advantage of digital technologies as citizens and how aspects such as social class, age or whether they are immigrants affect the way they use the internet and its implications. Its findings confirm that women's experiences vary and that it is essential to create social policies based on intersectionality.

Understanding how people use the internet

Arroyo's work is based on the premise that we need to take account of gender inequalities in order to understand how people use the internet and the implications of this use. It is also based on the fact that there is very little empirical evidence on the implications of digitization for women from different social classes as citizens.

In her thesis, Arroyo notes that "the Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies that have taken the gender perspective into account have focused mainly on technology design and production, but we need more empirical evidence on this issue from users' perspective, and more specifically from the point of view of women who are also affected by other inequalities such as social class."

For this project, the researcher conducted a qualitative study of 49 women who use digital inclusion programmes. It was carried out by means of interviews and discussion groups made up of unemployed working-class women, immigrant women and non-working middle-class women. Their experience in these programmes makes it possible to understand the presence of gender and social class inequalities through people's different internet uses.

The results of the study confirm that both internet use and its implications vary greatly as a result of inequalities relating to gender and social class, age, immigrant status and sexual orientation. These inequalities affect the amount of time women spend online, what the internet means to them and how they use it. 

“Applying for jobs online thus saves women from directly encountering racist attitudes”

Towards a new definition of the digital divide

An example of these inequalities can be seen in the way women use the internet in the labour market, which changes based on social class, educational background and age. The researcher has thus broadened the scope of the digital divide concept to include intersectional divides in the job market.

"While the internet is not an essential tool for work for either working-class women or middle-class women without a university degree, it is a key part of work for middle-class women with a university degree," Arroyo notes in her thesis. "This helps identify the possible biases that may be affecting the studies and assumptions underlying public policy as regards the role of digital skills in the labour market as a whole without taking the effects of gender, social class or age into account."

Experiences also differ between immigrant and non-immigrant women, as well as between younger and older women. According to Arroyo's findings, non-immigrant women over 50, for example, fear being excluded on the grounds of age when applying for a job online.

Immigrant women, on the other hand, feel that making their applications online protects them from the direct exclusion to which they might be subject if they handed in their CVs in person. "Applying for jobs online thus saves these women from directly encountering racist attitudes," said Arroyo.

"The findings also reveal how immigrant women value the resources and skills acquired in digital inclusion courses, stressing in particular the autonomy to look for work themselves and knowledge of the local environment, which improves their self-esteem and confidence," she said.

Arroyo also redefines the concept of digital divide by introducing the idea of an identity-based digital divide in the case of women. This refers to the way women's identities are shaped far from technologies and the way they perceive themselves as less able to use technology than men. The findings of the thesis point to the importance of ensuring that inclusion policies aim to reduce the identity-based digital divide that affects women.

Another finding of her thesis is the identification of the time divide as part of the digital divide concept. All the women in Arroyo's study, regardless of social class, were found to be affected by gender norms associated with the division of labour by gender. These norms end up affecting both the time available to them and the way they use the internet.

"We have thus observed that women go online only after fulfilling their work and family responsibilities, and they use the internet mainly to maintain the relationship of care with family members and peers," she wrote. "This online care work can be seen particularly in the case of immigrant women who have left young children in their countries of origin and who use digital technologies to carry out their role as mothers."

An open door to more inclusive policies

Thanks to examples such as these, we can understand that there are several aspects – gender, social class, age and immigrant status, among others – that together shape women's experience as new users of digital technology and their working, public and personal lives. 

The findings of this thesis in turn show that gender must be considered not merely as another socio-demographic variable but as a key aspect in approaching intersectionality when studying the use and implications of the internet.

According to Arroyo, there is an urgent need to design public policies that take account of the intersectional feminist perspective – rather than ones based on assumptions publicized by tech companies without empirical evidence – and that help women use the internet in a more strategic way. The findings of the thesis can themselves provide a path for designing new tools and solutions.

This research by the UOC contributes to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, Gender Equality.


The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

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