These Girls Don’t Want to Be Left Behind

Human Rights

In underdeveloped regions especially, women have little access to the digital world. Joana Breidenbach traveled to India to meet the women who, despite all obstacles, help shape the country's digital transformation.

I was in Delhi on a research trip for a comparative study on the digital gender gap in six countries, conducted by the Betterplace Lab. For two weeks, I talked to female entrepreneurs, NGOs and policy advisors in Bangalore and Delhi and did a number of Skype interviews with women in other Indian cities. Our goal was to understand why far fewer women participate in the digital sphere – both as consumers and as producers of technology – and how organizations and companies targeting women are trying to bridge that gap.

Betterplace Lab

The report "Bridging the Digital Gender Gap" of the Betterplace Lab gives insights into the digital opportunities of women in six different countries: Ethiopia, Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, and South Africa.

Jigyasa Grover is a real powerhouse. At age 21, the informatics student started the Delhi chapter of Women Who Code, a global network of female programmers. She travels to conferences and workshops throughout India and the world in order to deliver her passionate message of female empowerment: "Get out there and shape the digital world!"

While she tells me her story, I am walking with Jigyasa around Connought Place in Central Delhi. The streets are flanked with colonial buildings housing coffee shops, sari stores, and banks. We raise our voices in order to drown out the intense noise of honking cars.

Connought Place in Central Delhi, India.
India has about 1.2 million inhabitants, only China is more populated.

When Jigyasa started university in Delhi, she entered a very male-dominated world. Most of her fellow students were men, and when she attended her first hackathon, she was the only woman around. The organizers told her that she couldn’t stay up all night like the rest of the group, as they couldn’t vouch for her safety. But she wanted to be part of the competition. She loved the buzz, the music, the energy, the excitement in the room. Nevertheless, they booked her into a hotel room. "For the next hackathon, I organized two girlfriends to join me. They couldn’t refuse the three of us. And then I won the competition."

Jigyasa was on one end of the spectrum of people I talked to. Coming from a liberal Punjabi family, her parents had always encouraged her to follow her dreams and travel widely. She had attended an all-girls convent school, where she had been able to connect to her inner strength, learn how to speak her mind and never consider herself to be a second-class citizen. Now, at university in Delhi, she ploughed ahead, regardless of the many obstacles Indian women encounter in the public sphere. 

For the next hackathon, I organized two girlfriends to join me. They couldn’t refuse the three of us. And then I won the competition.
Jigyasa Grover
Women in India walking a public space,
In India, it is not always easy for women to leave behind traditional roles.

Caught between family values and personal aspirations

The day after my meeting with Jigyasa, I met another young woman, Simran, in the basement tech center of FAT (Feminist Approaches to Technology), a South Delhi NGO. The girls working here had a very different start into the digital economy. Coming from an urban slum area, Simran’s family expected her to get married and start a family at a teenage age. They strongly disapproved of her getting an education, believing that professional skills were for boys only. But Simran was determined to embark on a career. Luckily she met the people running FAT. Here Simran not only learned how to use a computer; she also started to become aware of the structural inequalities in India.

Gayatri Buragohain, the electronics engineer who started the NGO in 2010, believes that the digital gender divide can’t be bridged by teaching tech skills only. Girls need to understand the wider cultural patterns and power structures which prevent them from participating on an equal footing in Indian society. Thus sociological assignments—researching topics such as domestic violence and early forced marriage in their communities of origin—form an integral part of the training that FAT offers.

A young woman in selling jewelry.
Lacking education often makes it hard for girls to lead independent lives.

The encounters with the young girls at FAT touched me a lot. I could feel the huge tension they were trying to bridge: to stay connected to their families, while at the same time following their own, very different path in life. Before coming to India, I hadn’t been aware that cultural conservatism, patriarchial values and rigid gender norms make India one of the most gender-unequal societies worldwide.

In remote areas in India, there is the idea that cellphones will ‘spoil’ women, and men are afraid to give technology to women, as it would increase her independence.
Gayathri Sriram

The UNDP Gender Equality Index ranks the country at 130. The situation is especially bad in rural India, which makes up the bulk (70 percent) of the country. Here, access to the internet is limited due to coverage and affordability. But the situation is changing thanks to staggering growth rates of mobile-enabled internet. Nevertheless, women make up only 2 percent of internet users in rural areas. And even if there is access, it is often made complicated for women. 

Many villages in India have banned unmarried girls from using mobile phones. Access for married woman is also highly restricted. As Gayathri Sriram, the CEO of Mobiltrain and a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader, told me: "In remote areas in India, there is the idea that cellphones will ‘spoil’ women, and men are afraid to give technology to women, as it would increase her independence."

Trying to bridge the digital gender divide

One area in which many women encounter digital technology for the first time, is as rural health workers. Numerous so-called mHealth (Mobile Health) initiatives have sprung up around the country, teaching women how to use smartphones and tablets to improve their services while working as nurses in their communities. 

Dasra, a Mumbai-based strategic philanthropy organization and a close collaborator of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, supplied me with very interesting insights, as they have been researching the use of technology by mHealth providers targeting women and adolescent girls. Dasra observed that many NGOs working in the field of women and technology needed quite a lot of capacity building. Dasra is trying to meet this need by providing leadership training. They are also involved in teaching NGOs how to use the wealth of data available for program improvement and increased efficiency.

Gender Gap India
The technical infrastructure is often rudimentary, like here in Bangalore.

Female startups on the rise

In Bangalore, I encountered a much more familiar world. Here I visited co-working spaces and incubators. Jaaga Sustain is an incubator focused on environmental challenges that have an economic value and where technology offers a potential solution. In the airy space on the top floor of a downtown office building, I was surprised to see many women. Tej Pochiraju, CEO of Jaaga Sustain, told me that half of their environmental startups, such as Greenopia, are female-led.

In the last years, the startup and coding community has made a conscious effort to be more inclusive. Today, many tech events have at least 20 percent female participation and a number of organizations and events such as Girls in Tech, Women Who Code, or Hacker In Her have sprung up to help women access the tech scene.

There are also a number of cutting-edge websites run by women and targeting women, such as Babychakra (a community for young mothers), Yourstory (a tech magazine) and Sheroes (a platform for female jobs). These platforms are all for-profit ventures, but with a clear social impact orientation. They confirmed a finding the betterplace lab has seen all over the world: many new initiatives trying to solve a social problem are opting for a for-profit (instead of a non-profit) legal framework. One reason they do so is that for a for-profit organization, it is far easier to raise the required funding.

TechCenter Students at FAT Dehli with Joana Breidenbach.
Joana Breidenbach (center) with young TechCenter students at FAT Delhi.

Trying to capture the digital gender gap in a country as vast and diverse as India is a daunting task. There are many areas I didn’t have time to explore, such as the millions of Indian women working in the mobile phone industry and for software companies.

Nevertheless I left India highly impressed by the many determined, high-spirited, and thoughtful women who make up the hugely diverse and challenging landscape of digital India.

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