As if it were yesterday, I remember when my mother learned to drive. By today’s standards, she would be a unicorn, never behind the wheel until I was a preteen and my brother was a toddler. I remember thinking, “Why does my mom need to drive? My dad takes us on vacation, he picks me up from school. . .what else could there be?” It turns out, my mother learning to drive opened the door to all that I am today.
I was taken for a ride in more ways than one when my mother threw seatbelts on us. Museums, art galleries, home shows, you name it—my mother’s newfound skill introduced me to a whole new world. Without a doubt, her driver’s license changed the trajectory of my life. They say children are our future; I say women are the guiding light to our best path.
Just as my mother’s driving was a gateway many years ago, so is internet technology today. When women master digital skills, it unlocks opportunity for their loved ones, too.
When I received my first smartphone as a gift from a good female friend who is an engineer, it felt like she had given me a magic wand. I was no longer chained to my desk, now able to review documents and respond to my work emails from anywhere. I had all of my important information in a safe with its own special combination (I must admit…I really miss that Blackberry). Like my mother changing my reality with a car, this friend shifted the course of my future with the mobile internet. And the best part? I gained greater control over my own destiny.
Today more than ever, women need the wand of broadband technology. From education, to employment, to healthcare, to everyday tasks, women need every option available to support themselves and often their families. Case in point is the experience of so many women during the pandemic. Women are playing multiple roles as breadwinners, in-home teaching assistants for their children’s digital learning, caretakers, and homemakers. Without access to broadband, many women have been isolated, unable to work, communicate with friends and family, or provide their children with a pathway to learning. If we don’t close the digital divide now, this scenario could play out again amidst future crises.
There’s a “widening digital gender divide,” according to the OECD, which is standing in the way of women benefiting from the opportunities offered by the broadband revolution. This digital gender divide is also preventing women from giving their children the digital keys that unlock better education, healthcare, future jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. Worldwide, roughly 327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access mobile internet. And women are, on average, 26 percent less likely than men to have a smartphone. When women get broadband access, they use it to help their children build a brighter future, which positively impacts us all. From the OECD report:
The Internet, digital platforms, mobile phones, and digital financial services, offer “leapfrog” opportunities for all and can help bridge the divide by giving women the possibility to earn (additional) income, increase employment opportunities, and access knowledge and general information. This benefits women and their families, thus enhancing the lives and well-being of people and of society as a whole.
Closing the digital divide, by making sure that all Americans—especially women—can access broadband and afford it, will help to extend the benefits of digitization in an equitable way. Thankfully, President Joe Biden’s newly released infrastructure plan recognizes that broadband is a need-to-have. However, it suggests that subsidies that help low-income families afford broadband—such as those provided through what is called the “Lifeline Program”—may be abandoned. Instead, Lifeline should be modernized to make it easier for America’s neediest to access the benefit. Additionally, companies like Google and Facebook that make money through the internet should contribute to the program, so that the subsidy amount can be increased and every single mom, senior citizen and college student who needs the help can get it. The pandemic has made clear that, in today’s world, broadband is vital for education, healthcare, and work, regardless of where you live or how much money you make.
Let’s commit to empowering our world’s guiding lights with broadband so that they can lead us to bright horizons. Women deserve the opportunity to introduce their families to a future beyond anything they can dream. Even today, I still smile about all the places we went in that shiny, green Opel hatchback.
Kim Keenan is co-chair of the DC-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and former, longest-serving female general counsel of the NAACP.