What Would Different Feminist Approaches Say about the Digital Divide?

A feminist political economic approach is but one of many feminist approaches that explain why the divide exists and how technologies may be used to narrow this divide. In addition to a feminist political economy, 1 will also summarize three other schools of thought: liberal feminism, post-feminism, and technofeminism. When compared with the three other approaches, a feminist political economic approach pays more attention to: first, how goods and resources are produced, distributed, and consumed at the global level; second, how macrostructures such as the economy and politics reinforce an unequal distribution of goods and resources; and third, how gender ideology is used to legitimize this inequality (Lee, 2006).

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminists would explain the digital divide between the genders with inequalities in education, employment, and income between the two genders.4 Similar to bridging all divides, liberal feminists advocate that laws and regulations be implemented to ensure girl children and women have the same opportunities to learn and use digital technologies (Madgavkar, Ellingrud, & Krishnan, 2018; Robertson & Ayazi, 2019). They also believe that when women have access to digital technologies, they will produce content to better represent themselves and to participate more in public life. However, liberal feminists are wary that digital technologies make online sexual harassment and pornography pervasive, thus further reinforcing gender inequality (Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 2015). In short, liberal feminists believe that digital technologies, when used appropriately, are tools that help women close the education and income gaps. When they are used inappropriately, these tools perpetuate gender inequality.

Because liberal feminists mostly focus on how women use technologies, they do not always take into account how digital technologies may transform gender relations, such as challenging power relations between the two genders. They also do not always pay attention to who benefits from the production and consumption of digital technologies and content. In other words, as long as girl children and women have equal access to technologies and content as their male counterparts, it does not matter whether commercial or public/non-profit entities provide these technologies and content.


Post-feminists believe that gender equality has already been achieved so they would disagree with liberal feminists that digital divide exists. They believe that young girls and women have the power, agency, and creativity to use digital technologies for self-expression and representation (see discussion of a post-feminist view of digital media in Benn, 2013; Harvey & Fisher, 2015). Therefore, even if they use technologies differently from their male counterparts, they are as technologically apt; even if women use technologies in an apparently self-exploitative ways (such as taking “sexy” pictures of themselves and posting them online), they are exercising their agency and being playful. Unlike liberal feminists, post-feminists believe that gender relations are not fixed but can be transformed by digital technologies which challenge how gender is understood, experienced, and performed. However, like liberal feminists, post-feminists pay little attention to who benefits from the production and consumption of technologies and content.


A technofeminist perspective critiques how digital technologies are designed and how these designs are supposed to solve womens problems.Technofeminists such as Wajcman (1991) pointed out that technologies are predominately designed by men for men. When men design technologies for women, they often misconstrue the problems that women face; therefore, technologies do not solve women s problems, but instead create new realities that differentiate male users from female users (Webster, 1995). Unlike liberal feminists and post-feminists, technofeminists point out who designs technologies but do not usually explicate who economically benefits from these technologies. There remains a question whether women inventors and programmers will create more women-friendly technologies if the organizations for which women work have the prime motive of profit-making.

Although liberal feminists, post-feminists, and technofeminists have offered ways to theorize women and technologies, a feminist political economist would critique them to be Global Northcentric. Traditionally, Global North refers to wealthy, democratic countries in the Northern hemisphere as well as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Global South refers to countries in Central and South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and most of Asia (Royal Geographical Society, n/ a). However, the line between Global North and Global South became blurry when some countries in the Global South became wealthy (such as South Korea and Qatar) and when wealth disparities became more pronounced between rural and urban areas in a country, between residents living in gated communities and slums in a city.The Global North concept is more useful if it does not merely refer to specific regions and countries, but populations with sufficient income and resources to access food, shelter, schooling, healthcare, and other daily necessities regardless of geographical location. When the Global North is redefined as a population’s access to resources, then there is a Global North in the poorest countries in the world, and a Global South in the wealthiest countries in the world. With this definition, I assess liberal feminists, post-feminists, and technofeminists to be Global North-centric because they assume societies have sufficient resources to allocate for women and girls to produce, distribute, and consume technologies and content; all women and girls need are laws and regulations, training and education, will and creativity to bridge the digital divide between them and the male counterparts.

A Global North-centric view of digital divide needs to be critiqued from a Global South position that is compatible with a feminist political economic perspective because digital divide is not seen as an isolated inequality from other inequalities (such as income, education, workplace) or merely an inequality between men and women. A feminist political economic perspective argues that gender relations reflect and constitute unequal power relationships between the Global North and Global South.This perspective also acknowledges that gender relations are deliberately kept unequal because those who have the most resources have the power to make decisions for those who have the least resources.

At the global level, men of the dominant racial and ethnic groups from the upper-middle-class have the most power to make decisions about technological development. These decisions are implemented as international treaties, national policies, macroeconomic policies, and company policies. These decisions not only affect populations in their own countries, but also those in other countries. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by the US, Canada, and Mexico in 1992 has had devastating effects on women factory workers in Mexico. On the premise of facilitating free trade in the region, US-based companies moved audiovisual hardware manufacturing south of the border to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. In the name of economic development, the government encouraged women to leave their farms and homes to work at factories where sexual harassment and hazardous environments are common (Quintero-Ramirez, 2002). Similar situations are found in Chinese factories that manufacture Apple Computers (Qiu, 2009). Migrant workers moved from rural areas to economic zones where they work long hours making goods that they can barely afford.

A feminist political economic perspective not only occupies a Global South position, but also connects the political economic conditions between the Global South and Global North. For example, the harsh realities that Global South factory workers face should be understood in the context of economic recession experienced by the Global North since the 1970s. Economic recession led to wage stagnation in lower-class and middle-class families. To make ends meet, women often have to work part-time or full-time to bring in extra income. Women working outside the home may reflect womens empowerment and gender equality but they face systematic discrimination in the workplace: they tend to earn less than men doing the same job (Hegewisch & Tesfaselassie, 2019), work in less-well-paid industries such as education and human services (Stone & Southerlan, 2019;Wong, 2019), work in part-time and temporary positions (Sands, 2014), and have a harder time getting promoted to managers (Fuhrmans, 2019).

Ironically, the rise of two-income households also brought consumerism in the Global North. Supply-side economic theories believe that consumption will lead the Global North to dig out from recession (Yamamura, 2018). An image-saturated media environment also persuades two-income families that they deserve an upper-middle-class lifestyle (Schor, 1993). Advertisers and marketers promote the idea that multiple television sets and the latest technological devices are no longer luxury items, but necessities in the average household. The alluring images in the marketing and advertising of technologies obscure the harsh, mundane, and hazardous work environment experienced by Global South women. Some of the alluring images, ironically, ask women in the Global North to see technologies as empowerment tools. For example, some smartphone advertisements show a carefree woman roaming a new city with the aid of a smartphone, her freedom contrasting with the constrictive work conditions of factory workers.

To sum up, a feminist political economic perspective that takes a Global South position examines the unequal production and consumption of goods at the global level. It also asks what kind of gender ideology is used to legitimize this inequality. Feminist political economists believe that digital divide between the Global North and Global South is deliberately maintained so that those who have the power to control the resources can continue doing so. In this sense, unlike liberal feminists, postfeminists, and technofeminists, technologies are not seen as neutral political economic tools that, when designed and used appropriately, will advance gender equality.

In the following section, I will use a feminist political economic perspective to critique international policies that aim to bridge the digital gap between men and women, developed economies and developing ones. 1 argue that these policies implemented by international organizations rarely address the question of power. Instead, they point their finger at the “have-nots” by first defining for them the problem (i.e., digital divide), then blaming them for not solving this problem on their own. In addition, these policies often have a neoliberal agenda that aims to transform the “disadvantaged” populations into workers and consumers so that they can produce more surplus value for the national economy. To give an example, homemakers—very often women—are said to be potential wage earners who can contribute to the household and national income. When women have their own income, they are asked to see themselves as empowered consumers. From a feminist political economic perspective, women making their own money does not automatically liberate them; it in fact burdens them with work both inside and outside home, making them less available for the extended family and community even though they are still expected to play the primary caretaker role. The extra money that women bring in is advertised to be best spent on consumer goods such as smartphones so that they can better connect with their family and friends. By asking the “disadvantaged” populations to see themselves as individual workers and consumers, this neoliberal agenda weakens structures—such as family, community, and the public—that provide common goods and social network during economic downturns.

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