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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Jan 2024  Patralekha Chatterjee | Narrow the gender gap in usage of digital tech

Patralekha Chatterjee | Narrow the gender gap in usage of digital tech

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Jan 23, 2024, 10:47 pm IST
Updated : Jan 23, 2024, 10:47 pm IST

ASER 2023 Reveals Stark Gender Gap in Rural Youth's Skills: A Deeper Dive Into the Data

ASER 2023 Sheds Light on Gender Disparities in Education and Skills Development. (AA Representational Image)
 ASER 2023 Sheds Light on Gender Disparities in Education and Skills Development. (AA Representational Image)

By now, everyone is aware that nearly 25 per cent of rural youth in the 14-18 age group in India cannot read a Class 2 level text “fluently”, even if it’s in their regional language, and that more than half struggle with division (3-digit by 1-digit) problems. These are among the many data points from the recently-released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 “Beyond Basics” survey that grabbed the headlines. ASER 2023 is a rural household survey, and was carried out in 28 districts across 26 states in India, covering 34,745 youth in the 14-18 age bracket. One rural district was surveyed in each major state, except for Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where two rural districts were surveyed.

As one reads the nearly 250-page report, other trends leap out.

One trend worth emphasising pivots around the paradoxes permeating the lives of teenaged girls in rural India. There is a stark gender gap, including in the digital space, which can potentially impact their adult lives and their prospects in the changing world of work.

This is extremely important given the big picture. The world of work is changing rapidly and the female labour force participation rate in the country remains extremely low.

The report explores critical questions: Are our youth adequately prepared for the path ahead -- for further education, work, and life? What are they currently doing? Are they well prepared to handle literacy and numeracy tasks in everyday situations? Can they do simple financial calculations? Are they familiar with common digital devices and usage?

What is clear from the ASER report is that girls are keen to study, staying inside the classroom for longer, but when it comes to tasks that require skills that are useful and in demand in the labour market, they lag. This means young girls can potentially remain deprived of new opportunities in a labour market, even when such opportunities arise, simply because many reach adulthood lacking the knowledge and skills to go forward.

As ASER 2023 notes, females (76%) do better than males (70.9%) in reading a Class 2-level text in their regional language. Males do better than their female counterparts in arithmetic and English reading, the survey reveals.

Females are less likely to be enrolled in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) stream. Against 28.1 per cent females, around 36.3 per cent males were enrolled in the stream.

When it comes to digital awareness, nearly 90 per cent of youth have a smartphone in the household and know how to use it, but twice as many males (43.7 %) than females (19.8%) can use a smartphone.

Looking at some of the other data gives a sense of the underlying factors behind the numbers. They have a lot to do with girls spending more time at home, doing household chores, thus losing out on exposure to other everyday practical tasks. Social norms, family and community expectations also lead to more restrictions on their mobility outside the home and less access to digital devices. More females (86%) reported working at home as compared to males (66%).

Amid all the talk about Digital India, it is amply clear that though the overall penetration of smartphone technology in rural India has grown enormously in recent years, girls and young women have far less access to it than males and that impacts their ability to do digital tasks. One example: out of those surveyed, 49 per cent males and 25 per cent females knew how to use Google Maps.

“Girls are staying in school longer and wanting to continue studying even longer. These are very welcome trends. But they reflect a conundrum. Girls are staying in school longer, but this does not imply that they are gaining the knowledge, skills, or confidence needed to successfully negotiate their lives as adults. Other than basic reading proficiency, sampled males outperformed sampled females on every single assessment task,” it points out.

ASER Centre research director Suman Bhattacharjea wrote in an essay in the report: “What accounts for this enormous gender gap in outcomes? We examine three dimensions of the answer to this question: familiarity with the technology, familiarity with the type of task, and self-confidence in attempting tasks that may be difficult or unfamiliar… Looking first at familiarity with smartphones, at first glance it appears that youth of both sexes have the necessary exposure to the technology. As many as 95% males and 90% females reported knowing how to use a smartphone -- a gap of just five percentage points… However, what it means to ‘know how to use a smartphone’ looks very different across males and females. For example, males were more than twice as likely to own their own smartphone than females, and therefore were likely spending far more time using the device and using it for a wider variety of tasks.”

Says ASER 2023: “Among girls, socioeconomic context makes an enormous difference.”

Arguably, there are sharp variations between different states and districts in the country on every score, reflecting the huge diversity in India. Consider basic numeracy-related skills like financial calculations. In Assam’s Kamrup district (rural), in the 17-18, age-group, 67.9 per cent males can manage a budget, against 48.7 per cent for females. In Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag (rural) district, the corresponding figures for the same task and for the same age group are 79.4 per cent for males and 66.8 per cent for females.

Other reports covering a wider population across the country have also flagged the sharp gender divide in access and skills. The Oxfam’s Digital Divide-India Inequality Report 2022 points out that Indian women are 15 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33 per cent less likely to use mobile Internet services than men. The report further states that women tend to use mobiles and the Internet differently than men. For example, they use cheaper, less sophisticated handsets, they use a smaller range of digital services, and their Internet consumption is far less. When it comes to online banking and digital payments, 69 per cent men and only 31 per cent women use these facilities. The official data corroborates the gender divide. According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-2021, ownership of a mobile phone that women themselves use increases with age, from 32 per cent among women in the 15-19 age group to 65 per cent among women between 25 and 29. and decreases among older women.

These are not mere numbers. They are critical to the lives of millions of India’s girls and women. India can’t achieve its full potential unless the gender divide narrows.

Tags: patralekha chatterjee column, annual status of education report (aser), schooling systems