Gender’s digital divide – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Gender’s digital divide

To start with a timeless question: what do woman want? Presumably, whatever else may be on their list, they want something approaching an equality of genders in society. Are we there yet?

First, the good news: in Canada there is much encouraging evidence. A recent Statistics Canada report demonstrates considerable progress by women in many professions traditionally dominated by men. Things look so promising in fact that the president of the Public Service Commission recently asked if it was time to rethink whether women still warrant special consideration under the Employment Equity Act.

After all, the public service is now more than one half female, including more than 40 percent of the executive management cadre. The demographics of MPA programs would suggest a continuation of this trajectory for some time to come.

Nonetheless, one of the glaring exceptions to this rosy portrait remains political representation in elected office (another can be found in Canadian boardrooms). Canada’s record is hardly stellar: Wikipedia reports that Canada ranks 50th in the world in 2010 with just 23 percent of all seats in federal, provincial and territorial legislatures held by women.

One might think that in light of such meagre results, there would be an appetite for some form of proactive measure to close this gap. From Rwanda to India, quotas are being introduced to formally enshrine minimum thresholds into law.

Yet for most Canadians – including and perhaps especially young women – the notion of formalizing quotas is a non-starter, akin to an unwelcome form of discrimination. This view, especially on campus, stems partly from the aforementioned evidence that women are doing just fine and quite capable of succeeding by way of effort and performance; gaining a position by virtue of gender is thus demeaning.

A more worrying view, however, is that young women, perhaps even more than young men, are simply indifferent or hostile to a political system that not only struggles with relevance and legitimacy but remains excessively masculine. The salience of such a possibility is heightened in the digital world where the competitive-driven ethos of dynamics such as gaming and blogging may be a turn-off to many women.

In her dismissal of the blogosphere, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente invokes the condition some have labelled Male Answer Syndrome, the online variant of young boys in the classroom being more prone to raise their hand in rivalry and, in Wente’s view, the propensity of men to be more openly opinionated and less reflective than women. Though her evidence is anecdotal, there are worrisome trends in terms of the nexus between gender, technology and politics.

Consider the tone of aggressive partisanship and the media fixation on the militaristic-like calculations of party leaders. This past winter one respected Canadian journalist quipped on television that “Prime Minister Harper lies awake at night dreaming about how to kill Liberals.” While meant in jest, the comment underscores how our politics are framed by the adversarial (and more masculine) traditions of Parliament.

With respect to technology, research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in the United States demonstrates that those most apt and eager to embrace technology, so-called “digital collaborators,” are mostly male. European research on children and the Internet shows that in every country, boys are more voracious gamers online than young girls. Girls are less likely to post videos online, preferring photos and text. Additionally, in Australia and Sweden, studies demonstrate a much greater likelihood of young males to access pornographic content online.

Indeed, after a decade or so of mainstream e-government the picture globally is mixed at best. Despite some promising efforts in many jurisdictions to pursue gender equality, the emergence of the Internet has been by and large a disappointment in this regard. As the United Nations newly released 2010 e-government survey makes clear: “women will not have access or benefit equally with men to information and communications technologies, including the Internet, unless specific and targeted gender goals and strategies are implemented in ICT projects…[D]espite a few positive examples, ICTs and the Internet in particular remain problematic.”

A considerable amount of research demonstrates that women are, in general, more egalitarian-minded in the workplace, whereas men tend to gravitate more toward hierarchy and control. Much of the new public service being aspired to – networked, collaborative, citizen-centric, etc. – would seem to be shifting in such a manner (and many would say that our politics should be as well). Online, however, a world that is more connected, sensational and instantaneously opinionated may harbour new gender divides in terms of how we adapt.   

For Canada, then, the prospects for the public sector would seem to vary considerably depending on whether the focus is organizational management or political institutions. The problem is that both are invariably intertwined and if the latter further erodes in terms of gender balance, so too shall legitimacy and performance for government as a whole.  


Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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