Digital Divide and Gender: A Survey of Environmental Community
Organizations’ Leaders in Perth, Western Australia
Subas P. Dhakal
School of Sustainability, Murdoch University, Western Australia
The digital divide is generally considered to be the lack of capability to adopt and effectively utilize Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Although the need of building ICT capability of community organizations in Australia has been increasingly emphasized in recent years, the gender dimensions of digital divide amongst leaders of community organizations remain unexplored. This paper responds to this gap and explores the trend of ICT adoption amongst Environmental Community Organizations (ECOs) in Western Australia with a gender lens. The findings from a survey of 81 ECOs indicated that benefits and barriers associated with ICT adoption significantly differed according to gender of the leader. Drawing on the survey findings, the paper concludes by discussing why gender matters in overcoming the digital divide and makes recommendation for further research.
Community organizations have been increasingly recognized as integral part of the civil society or the nonprofit sector in addressing social, economic and environmental concerns at the grassroots level (Smith 2000, Anheier 2005). In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on pragmatic as well as policy level initiatives to enable these organizations to benefit from the effective utilization of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as, email and websites. Gurstein (2000) refers to these initiatives as Community Informatics (CI) – ‘an approach concerned with enhancing civil society and strengthening local communities for self management and for environmental and economically sustainable development, ensuring that many who might otherwise be excluded are able to take advantage of the enormous opportunities the new technologies are presenting’ (p. 2).
It is apparent from Gurstein’s description that CI aspires to overcome the notion of digital divide – a symbol of perceived disadvantage of those who either are unable or unwilling to make use of ICTs (Cullen 2001). Although the notion of digital divide is an outcome of categorical inequalities in society that, if unaddressed, is likely to reinforce the existing inequalities even further (van Dijk 2005), the digital divide typically reflects on the lack of capability to access as well as develop skills to effectively utilize ICTs due to various socioeconomic factors such as age, education, gender, and income (Attewell 2001, Hargittai 2002, Gurstein 2003, Korrup & Szydlik 2005). For instance, mature women (above 55) in Australia are still less likely to have access to the Internet compared to men in a same age group at the household level (ABS 2007).
With the rise in availability and access to ICTs in recent years, several studies in developed countries have explored the implications of ICT uptake amongst community organizations (Weare et al 2005, Pinho and Macedo 2006, Hackler and Saxton 2007). Although systematic studies of this nature are lacking (DiMaggio et al 2001), it is argued that community organizations are generally not the leaders in ICT uptake (Johnson 1999, Kirshenbaum and Kunamneni 2002, Kvasny and Lee 2003). Overcoming barriers to ICT uptake/access amongst community organizations has therefore become a national priority in countries like Australia (Gregor et al 2004, DCITA 2005a, DCITA 2005b, CISA 2007).
This paper concerns a distinct set of community organizations in Australia that are primarily involved in protection of the local environment. These community organizations are referred to as Environmental Community Organizations (ECOs) hereafter. The functioning of ECOs is based on the notion and practice of volunteering where community members provide time and energy towards activities like restoration and management of local bushland and wetlands. ECOs generally operate with fewer members/volunteers/paid staff and have limited funds to support their activities (Dhakal 2009) compared to the well-known larger environmental organizations such as Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Nonetheless, ECOs were amongst the first community organisations to experiment with ICT uptake in Australia. The National Landcare Program and the University of Melbourne jointly experimented with the computer network project called ‘LandcareNet’ in the early nineties (Hawkins et al 1992, Campbell 1994). The project was initiated after the need for better social interaction channels was realised amongst ECOs, mainly Landcare and Catchment groups. However, in an era prior to the Internet revolution, the lack of resources as well as skills ultimately led to the downfall of LandcareNet (Curnow 1996). The trend of access to the Internet and uptake of ICTs amongst ECOs has been noticeably missing from the literature since then. Obviously, although the number of women led ECOs outnumbers those led by men, at least in Perth (Dhakal 2009), gender dimensions towards ICTs uptake amongst ECO and community organizations in general remain unexplored.
This paper describes the preliminary findings of a survey developed to gain broader understanding of the trend, benefits of and barriers to ICTs adoption amongst ECOs in Perth (the state capital of Western Australia) with a gender lens. The paper begins with an overview of a discussion on gender and digital divide. The paper then describes the survey methodology and summarizes the key findings prior to making concluding remarks.
Gender and Digital Divide
Before exploring gender dimensions of the digital divide, it is necessary to comprehend differences between sex and gender. Gender differs from sex because sex refers to the anatomical and physiological difference between men and women whereas gender refers to behaviours resulting from socializations (West and Zimmerman 1987, Duerst-Lahti and Kelly 1995). As the issue of access to and uptake of ICTs is entwined with the gender differences (Kole 2001), the need of acknowledging these differences is crucial to overcome the digital divide. Bimber (2000) observed that men and women do adopt ICT differently but the gender gap in terms of ICT utilization is determined by the combination of gender and socioeconomic factors and not the gender exclusively. Due to socialization process, women may undermine their capabilities, and as a result, be reluctant to adopt ICT. Hargittai and Shafer (2006) reported that men and women do not necessarily differ in their ICT capabilities but women’s self assessed skills were significantly lower than that of men. That is why, although gender gap in terms of access to ICT has been narrowed in developed countries, concern over gender differences should not necessarily be sidelined (Ono and Zavodny 2003).
In Australia, the latest census data on access to the Internet does not indicate gender gap at the household level (ABS 2007). However, information on access to the Internet alone does not reveal the benefits associated with access, and more importantly, barriers to access. A closer scrutiny of ABS (2007) data reveals that mature women (above 55) are less likely to have access to the Internet compared to men in a same age group at the household level. This gap is significant in the context of ECOs in Perth because the majority of leaders are mature women (Dhakal 2009). It might well be that the digital divide has moved beyond the binary divide of the haves and have-nots (Gunkel 2003, Kennedy et al 2003, Warschauer 2003), it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a case for gender in ICT strategies without gender specific data on have versus have-nots (Hafkin 2003). Targeting women with limited access to ICTs or skills to adopt ICT is one of the ways to ensure formulation of strategies that promote gender equality (Gurumurthy 2006). This paper asserts that comprehending gender differences in the way leaders access and adopt ICTs are valuable in overcoming digital divide amongst ECOs and other community organizations.
Building on a few studies about ICT and community organizations that exist in Australia (ACOSS 1996, Denison 2003), a survey was constructed to gain broader understanding of the trend, benefits of and barriers to ICT adoption amongst ECOs in the Perth region of Western Australia (WA), with the following Research Questions (RQ):
RQ1: Is there a gender gap in terms of access to and adoption of ICTs?
RQ2: Will the perceived benefits from ICTs differ according to gender?
RQ3: Are the barriers to ICTs adoption gender-specific?
The Perth region in WA is spread over an area of 770,000 hectares which includes Perth metropolitan area with a population of about 1.5 million (SCC 2004). It is estimated that there are about 400 active ECOs in the region, either established directly through local community commitment to a particular local environmental issue or as a result of encouragement from state agencies to provide more formal representative groups covering catchments and neighbourhoods (O'Byrne 2006). However, a comprehensive list of ECOs (other than an out-of-date directory published by Swan River Trust in 1996) does not exist. A conservation directory maintained by Swan Catchment Council (recently renamed as Perth Region NRM) listed approximately 150 community organizations in the region and their contact details (retrieved October 9, 2007 from http://www.swancouncil.org.au). Based on the names of community organizations, such as, catchment group, friends of wetlands, coastcare association, and etcetera, a total of 116 organizations in the list were identified as ECOs. And a leader of each organization was requested to participate in the survey.
Survey instrument and data analysis
The self administered postal survey entitled ‘ICTs and ECOs’ was conducted from June to August in 2008. The Tailored Design Method (TDM) was utilized to design and disseminate the survey instrument. TDM (Dillman 2000) incorporates five specific elements, namely; 1) respondent friendly language and design/layout of the questionnaire, 2) four contacts; a) pre-notice letter (two weeks prior to mailing the actual survey), b) cover letter and the survey questionnaire itself, c) reminder letter (two weeks later), and d) thank you letter (for ECOs that returned the survey), 3) postage paid return envelopes, 4) personalized correspondence, and finally, 5) financial incentives for the leaders as a token of appreciation for completing and returning the survey.
The survey instrument contained a total of 25 (mostly close ended) questions with a provision (at the end) for the respondents to make comments or suggestions. The survey aimed to collect information about:
A total of 83 responses were received, of which 81 were complete and usable (a response rate of 68.9%). The response rate was in line with a desirable rate of 50% or above for the nonprofit organizations (Hager et al 2003). In order to explore the research questions, descriptive statistics, frequencies, cross-tabulations, correlations and tests of statistical significance were carried out.
Almost two-thirds (65.4%) of respondents were female leaders. More than three-quarter of the respondents were above 50 years of age (male 34.5% and female 48.2%). More number of female leaders had higher level of educational qualification than male leaders. Nearly two-third of male (64.3%) and female (64.2%) leaders had been in the same leadership position for more than 4 years. On average, ECOs had been functioning for 14.2 years, had 73.3 members, 37.1 volunteers and employed 0.5 staff. However, nearly 63% and 56% of ECOs reported of having less than 20 members and 20 volunteers.
Is there a gender gap in terms of access to and adoption of ICTs?
The majority of leaders (87.7%) indicated that their organization had access to the Internet and reported of using email. However, less than one-third organizations had websites and less than one-tenth organizations posted blogs. As indicated in Table 1, none of the leaders indicated the use of videoconferencing or podcasting. Although more ECOs with female leaders reported of having websites and using mobile phone/sms, no significant gender specific differences were detected either in terms of access to the Internet or uptake of various ICTs.
Further exploration of the website adoption revealed that a) 10 leaders (5 male and 5 female) were planning to have organizational websites up and running in the near future, and b) 13 out of 25 leaders (9 female and 4 male) indicated their websites were hosted through other organizations. Interestingly, one female leader reported of having an organizational website (hosted through other organizations) but indicated lack of access to the Internet.
Mode of Interactions
The survey collected data on various modes of intra-organizational (within ECOs) and inter-organizational (between ECOs and other organizations) interactions. During the data entry process, it was noticed that while most leaders used multiple modes of interactions, a handful number of leaders reported of using only email. Hence, a separate category of ‘only email’ was added for the data analysis.
As depicted in Figure 1, email was the preferred mode of intra-organizational and inter-organizational interactions for male leaders. Interestingly, about a quarter of the male leaders reported using ‘only email’ to interact with environmental networks and peak environmental bodies.
On the contrary, ‘face to face’ was the preferred mode of intra-organizational interactions and ‘email’ was the preferred mode for inter-organizational interactions for female leaders (Figure 2).
Similar to male leaders, about a quarter of female leaders interacted with environmental networks using ‘only email’. Interestingly, one female leader (between 60 – 70 years of age) indicated that she no longer used email because of a dial-up connection issues. As a result, her frequency of interactions with other organizations declined considerably since ‘dropping out’ of email.
Will the perceived benefits from ICTs differ according to gender?
The survey collected data on whether leaders agreed/disagreed about the potential benefits of ICT uptake in various organizational contexts (Table 2). The responses were rated according to the Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (4).
As indicated in Table 2, Mann-Whitney U tests (nonparametric t-test) detected two significant differences in mean ranks of perceived benefits of ICTs between male and female leaders. Male leaders perceived of ICT being significantly more beneficial (in terms of raising funds and supplementing interactions) than female leaders.
Are the barriers to ICTs adoption gender-specific?
The survey collected data on whether the ability to fully benefit from ICTs was compromised by any factors, such as cost, skills and etcetera. The majority of male leaders (70.8%) indicated other organizations not using ICTs as a main barrier whereas the majority of female leaders indicated the lack of skills (66.7%) and the lack of technical support (79.2%) as main barriers. As indicated in Table 3, Chi square tests detected significant gender differences (p ≤ 0.05) in three specific types of barriers.
Interestingly, one of the female leader (between 60 - 70 years of age) commented that lack of free or low-cost courses to become skilled in upgrading brochures and PowerPoint presentations was the main barrier.
It is also noteworthy to mention here that more than 90% of the leaders did not consider the lack of ICT specific financial support as a barrier. Similarly, 76% of the leaders did not consider high cost associated with ICT uptake as a barrier. In addition, 37 leaders reported other types of barriers (Table 4), of which, more than one-third were related to members/volunteers either not having computers and access to the Internet or lacking skills.
The general trend of access to the Internet and uptake of ICT like website amongst community organizations in Australia has continuously improved over the years. The 1996 survey conducted by Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) amongst 209 community organizations indicated 38% had access to the Internet, 36% used email and 14% had websites (ACOSS 1996). Whereas the 2002 survey conducted by Centre for Community Networking research (CCNR) amongst 923 community organizations revealed that 90% had access to the Internet and 61% had websites (Denison 2003). By that standard, ECOs in Perth are lagging behind, especially, in terms of website uptake (30.9%). The finding is also consistent with a generally accepted notion that Australian community organizations are not considered the leaders in ICT uptake (Johnson 1999, DCITA 2005a, Denison and Johanson 2007). Since ACOSS and CCNR surveys did not focus on the gender specific dimensions of leaders, appropriate comparison was not possible. However, the fact that no significant gender differences were detected in terms of access to the Internet as well as ICTs uptake resonates with the overall national trend in Australia (ABS 2007) and suggests that ICT related gender inequality (in terms of access to the Internet) may have narrowed in recent years (Willis and Tranter 2006).
The lack of significant differences in email usage between male and female leaders supports the finding of Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott (2005) but disputes the finding of Boneva and Kraut (2002). Intra-organizational interactions pattern of male leaders revealed that usage of email had superseded face to face mode of interactions. Perhaps, it partially explains why more male leaders perceived of ICT being beneficial towards supplementing ways of interactions compared to female leaders. This finding is of particular significance because as Truong et al (1993) pointed out, perceived benefits can be more significant than the ICT itself. Consequently, female leaders might not bother to build their ICT skills, if they do not see ICT as being useful (Bratteteig and Verne 1997). The aggregate pattern of email based organizational interactions supports the view of email being more useful tool than websites for smaller community organizations (Hart et al 2005).
The significant differences in terms of various barriers to the adoption of ICTs indicate that more female leaders desire technical support and skills enhancement opportunities than male leaders.
This finding is consistent with the viewpoint that the skills to utilize ICT are more important than physical access to ICT (Manzo and Pitkin 2007). Moreover, no reported use of podcasting and videoconferencing imply that complex and evolving nature of ICT may compromise the ability of smaller community organizations to adopt newer ICTs (Merkel et al 2007). In addition, the lack of perceived benefits associated with the newer ICTs may have actually resulted in the avoidance of such ICT.
The fact that the majority of leaders didn’t consider ‘high cost’ and the ‘lack of financial support’ as barriers to ICT uptake implies that the focus on ICT specific financial assistance as a strategy to overcome digital divide (McNutt 2008) may be inappropriate in the context of ECOs. Instead, a strategy that concentrates on building skills of not only leaders (female as well as male) but also of the members/volunteers affiliated with organizations (where possible) may be more relevant in the context of ECOs. Some of the other reported barriers to ICT uptake reflect on the complexities within the notion of digital divide. In line with the assertion of van Dijk (2005), gender differences in terms of level of motivation (other priorities) versus willingness to brush-up skills (not enough opportunities), have-nots (cannot afford) versus want-nots (not necessary), and dropouts (tried but no longer using ICTs) versus evaders (lack of time or interest) were also evident from the survey findings.
Revisiting the research questions, it is clear that except for access to the Internet and uptake of ICTs (email, websites); gender mattered in how leaders perceived benefits associated with ICTs and the barriers to benefit from ICT uptake. Bridging these differences will be increasingly important, as the leaders of community organizations need to build capabilities to effectively utilize ICT. Depending on the scope of organizational objectives and activities, it might well be the case that ICT uptake may not be necessary for every ECO, and more importantly, male and female leaders certainly do not have to have the same level of access to ICT and utilization skills. However, as ICT become increasingly ubiquitous in an organizational context, women led ECOs that are either not able to or not willing to keep up with the ICT could be at risk (if not already) of further digital isolation, and consequently, might reinforce already existing gender inequalities further. Although the exploratory nature of this paper was limited in scope, the findings did provide a glimpse of ICTs uptake amongst ECOs in Perth. In-depth exploration of the nature of technical support needed and the purpose of ICT uptake in the future can provide useful insights towards overcoming the gender dimensions of digital divide amongst ECOs. Not because women leaders are less capable of effectively utilizing ICTs but because women leaders could better make use of ICT skills to further organizational objectives.
This research was conducted within the Australasian CRC for Interaction Design (ACID), which is established and supported under the Australian Government's Cooperative Research Centres Program.
The author is thankful to Dr. Ian Barns and Dr. Ingrid Richardson of Murdoch University for their incessant guidance during the research and the leaders of Environmental Community Organizations who kindly participated in the survey.
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