Until the first wave of COVID-19 hit the United Kingdom last year, Karon, who prefers not to give her full name, only ever made limited use of the internet. The last time there had been a functioning computer in her South London home, her husband was still alive: that was in 2016. The final years of his life were punishing on the family. He had been made redundant from his job as a digital map librarian for a chartered surveyor, when Karon was pregnant with their daughter, Sian, in 2009. She would find him hunched over the keyboard, tapping away in his search for a new job.
“I mostly used the computer to store family photos, but not much else. We’d been talking about getting a new one before he died,” Karon, 52, says. This plan never came to fruition, however, as most of her time was consumed by the staggering trials that lay ahead of her in her untimely bereavement.
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Karon had worked as a teaching assistant at several primary schools and nurseries. Suddenly, she was also the main carer for Sian, now 11, who was born with a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that causes severe motor and speech impairment. Even with state-provided childcare support coming out of her tax credits, things were difficult for the two of them. For 18 months after her husband’s death, Karon continued to work, but the strain of finding the childcare that Sian needed while she was away from home started to take its toll and she was forced to give up work for a time.
In March 2020, when Karon was working again, schools across the UK went into lockdown as a preventative measure against the spread of COVID. As Sian’s teachers began sending out homework that could be accessed through the school’s website, Karon panicked. “I said, ‘I’ve got no laptop’. Sian had been without schoolwork for two weeks. I was making little books for her from scratch to buy time, simple phonic exercises so she could practise the alphabet.” Her husband’s old laptop had long stopped working by this point, although they did still have access to the internet at their home.
A neighbour who heard about her problem offered to help print out Sian’s assignments for her until a solution could be found. Alerted to Karon’s predicament by a pastoral manager at the school, the headteacher dropped by their home personally with a laptop belonging to the school, telling her that she could keep it indefinitely. “He’s a miracle worker, Mr Taylor,” Karon says.
Karon’s experience of digital exclusion is far from uncommon in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics’ most recent figures, 59 percent of “internet non-users” in 2020 (or 1.97 million people) in the country were women. This is a segment of the population that has never gone online. A further 1.5 million women had not used the internet for at least three months at the time that the survey was conducted. Despite an overall surge in internet usage driven out of necessity by the pandemic, women have continued to lag behind men in terms of online access – a trend that has persisted since 2013. When it comes to technological competency, there is a similar gender divide. In 2018, women made up 61 percent of 4.3 million UK adults who were found to have no basic digital skills at all.
‘I kept failing’
As public services, consumer businesses and financial institutions continue to move online in response to COVID, the real implications of gender inequality in digital usage are still not being seriously investigated. However, a report by the Financial Conduct Authority, the financial services regulator in the UK, shows that the most immediate consequences for women are economic. Sixty percent of those “showing low financial capability” are women; in terms of possession of investible assets and pensions, men are also ahead. The same report notes that women are more likely than men to have at least one type of vulnerability – such as an underlying health condition or poor knowledge of financial matters – which may leave them further disenfranchised, as support becomes increasingly digitised.
“The digital divide in gender easily mirrors the gender inequality issue,” says Dr Amizan Omar, an Associate Professor at the School of Management at the University of Bradford. “There are several key barriers impeding the online presence of women. These include lack of access … due to inability to pay for devices or their running costs; digital illiteracy that is related to their level of education; lack of opportunities to use or be involved with these technologies; and fear for their safety and of discrimination.”
For women who do not work desk jobs, there is little scope in their day-to-day lives for improving their digital aptitude. Making ends meet is tough enough for a single parent like Karon, let alone considering a fairly expensive purchase like a laptop. “Sometimes you do without,” she says, “so long as your child is happy.”
I said, ‘I’ve got no laptop’. My daughter, Sian, had been without schoolwork for two weeks. I was making little books for her from scratch to buy time, simple phonic exercises so she could practise the alphabet.
Karon rarely spends money on herself, and scours her local market in South London for economical meal options, such as £1 ($1.38) vegetable boxes. Long-life milk and other preservable foods are the lynchpins of her weekly menus. When the shops were closed during lockdown, Karon ended up cutting down her leggings to make shorts for her daughter, who had grown out of her old clothes. “If I’ve been very careful that week [with money], then it’s possible for me to give Sian a treat on Fridays. Usually it’s Chinese takeout, or a meal at the pub.”
From mid-March 2020, Karon was placed on furlough by the educational agency that had contracted her to supervise lunchtime for several children at a special needs school. “The furlough pay was meant to be £50 ($69) per week,” she says. The agency stopped paying her after a few months, and she never heard from them again – she was not informed why her pay stopped. Looking for work is stressful, as she needs to be at home in the afternoon to care for Sian. Until the pandemic is over and Sian is at secondary school in a few months’ time, Karon fears she will not be able to apply for another job.
Before the pandemic, Karon frequented the office of Carers Lewisham, an independent charity in her neighbourhood funded by the local authority which provides advice and specialist support for carers. “I went there to use the computers, so I could write my CV,” she says. “You’ve only got a certain amount of time [to spend while there]. I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it … I was really emotional and in tears. A support worker helped me until I got it right.” She had taken a computer course more than a decade ago, but the focus of it had been on creating PowerPoint slides and Excel sheets – software that she would likely never use at work or in her personal life. “I kept failing,” she continues. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening.”
I wanted to understand why women of different ages and backgrounds in the UK had remained off the digital radar – often not for want of trying. My conversations revealed a sobering, complicated truth: that low internet use among women is usually tied up with a morass of other issues, mostly centred around socioeconomic marginalisation. A gaping chasm exists in our knowledge of the precise ways that digital exclusion impedes women’s lives – and so this is where accounts of their lived experiences is particularly valuable.
‘I try to use the public Wi-Fi’
It is 1pm on a Tuesday in mid-June. The southeast London neighbourhood of Forest Hill comprises, as its name suggests, clusters of sleepy, verdant residential estates. As I turn down a street, the tranquility is punctuated by animated chatter emanating from a nondescript building, which resembles any other house in the area.
This is Ewart Community Hall, home ground for members of CatBytes, a social enterprise that supports older people in developing basic digital skills. Formed in 2014 as a volunteer project, CatBytes has gained prominence in the local community for its work collecting and repurposing donated computer equipment, and distributing it to those in need. Recipients tend to be people living in isolation or families who cannot afford a digital device.
As the main point of contact for her younger brother, who is autistic, non-verbal and lives in a residential home with 24-hour care, Gloria was forced to get online during COVID in order to be able to liaise with his care workers
At this week’s social club organised by CatBytes – the Techy Tea Club – about 15 people are sitting in a brightly lit room with laptops, talking to one another. The majority of them are older women. This is unsurprising: after all, women above the age of 55 – some 1.8 million – make up the majority of those who are classed by the Office for National Statistics as internet non-users. (Men of an analogous age group, in contrast, account for 1.2 million.) In the pantry, some others are taking a break with tea, coffee and biscuits. The purpose of CatBytes, says its founder and director, Damian Griffiths, is to pair up people keen to pick up digital skills with volunteer “buddies” able to assist them, all in an informal social setting.
Gloria Brown, 66, is a regular at the Techy Tea Club. Today, she is here to enlist Griffiths’ help in updating some software on her Dell laptop, which she has owned for seven years. While she does have internet at home, Gloria says that she finds renewing the contract and resolving issues when the connection is down onerous. She first met Griffiths at a community project that both of them had been involved in – CatBytes’ success has grown through relationships built on grassroots efforts of this type. Gregarious and open, Gloria, who lives alone, says that she felt the first lockdown in March 2020 was particularly tedious.
“It definitely makes a difference being able to stay in touch with people,” she says. Until the pandemic began, she used her laptop mostly to write short stories and poems, and to send emails. After the pandemic started, she says, “I had to learn how to use Zoom, and to get on the internet to do all sorts of things”. As the main point of contact for her younger brother, Vincent, 60, who is autistic, non-verbal and lives in a residential home with 24-hour care, she was forced to get online during COVID to be able to liaise with his care workers regarding his needs. “It’s even harder when I can’t see him in person because he can’t express himself,” she says. “The only word he can say is ‘hug’.”
Gloria admits that before she retired in 2012 from her job as a community engagement officer at the local council, her ability to use the computer in a professional context was rudimentary at best. “It was very confusing, but there was always someone available to help.”
Scrolling through her phone, Gloria is eager to show off a video of one of her friends singing a song for her brother on his birthday in March. “I organised a Zoom birthday party for him with his carers, and showed him the video over the call,” she beams. “You should have seen his face. He was so happy.”
Gloria uses a pay-as-you-go phone on which she spends around £10 a month ($13.85) for calls and messages. She has to be careful about using data on it, because it can run her credit down fast. “If I’m out meeting somebody, I try to use the public Wi-Fi.”
Gloria is also a volunteer with another organisation called the Golden Oldies, which helps older people in need, mostly from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. It was able to give members 20 used mobile phones that were donated by the supermarket chain Tesco. An older phone that she owned, Gloria explains, was very slow and almost non-functional.
Golden Oldies has been paramount in alleviating any pangs of loneliness that Gloria experiences, both during and before COVID. A large segment of its 120 members is of Afro-Caribbean descent like her, and has had to learn how to connect over weekly Zoom sessions when there was no chance of physically socialising in lockdown.
Surrounding herself with others who share her interests and cultural traditions has been comforting for Gloria. Her parents had arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1953 as part of the Windrush generation – an influx of Caribbean migrants thought to be in the thousands – who came to fill post-war labour shortages. Many found employment as cleaners, drivers and manual workers, and their contributions to the country’s economic growth over the years has been immensely underrated. In April 2018, the government apologised for threatening to deport the descendants of the Windrush generation, such as people like Gloria.
She remembers the indigence of her childhood with stoicism: “My sister and I were placed in a children’s home for a while, because our mother had twins after us, and it was very hard.” Her experience of the British education system was one of deep-seated, institutionalised racism. She recalls with distaste the headmaster of the local primary school that she attended: “He was very much a man of the British Empire, didn’t want us to do well.” Told consistently that she was an underachiever, she was placed in the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) stream, a now-defunct qualification that was seen as being inferior to the more widely accepted O-level exams. “It was the only thing I was allowed to do,” she says. “That’s what they did to Black kids at the time, put us in lower streams. I wanted to go on to college and be a journalist, but my teacher said, why don’t you work at Woolworths [a retail chain that has since been dissolved in the UK]?”
I ask Gloria if it angers her that she was denied opportunities that might have put her in a different place today. She ponders this carefully. “Not angry,” she says, finally. “But I do feel like so much was wasted. So much of what we could have is determined by our career paths. You get beyond the anger and do what you have to do.”
Still, she sounds ebullient about how her life has turned out, and does not think of herself as downtrodden. She says that she has discovered plenty of joy in community work, and in ensuring that marginalised women have access to the arts. “We’ve got these computers and phones now,” she waves at both her devices, “but nothing is quite the same as being able to meet people in person, and go to the theatre together, and just talk. You can’t replace that with a Zoom chat.”
She points out that digital exclusion continues to persist at the intersection of sex and race: “It’s an expense, you know? Owning a device, having the knowledge to use it well. Women make less money, so do ethnic minorities. That’s why you hear about so many women going to libraries to use the internet. It’s because they can’t afford it at home.”
Griffiths, who manages a team of four including two volunteers, says that there is rarely a shortage of demand for CatBytes’ services. “We haven’t been capturing these statistics systematically, but the impression I get is that a higher-than-average proportion of people that we deal with are from ethnic minorities. And there are a lot of large families who need more than one device, because every child has to use one for their homework, or there’s not enough to go around.” He adds that he has been taken aback by the extent of need: “We mostly get the laptops from public donations, and for the first six months before Christmas, I was quite embarrassed about some of the ones we gave out, even after refurbishing for minor faults. I was surprised that people were OK with them … it just shows what a big divide there is.”
Before I leave, I ask Gloria if I can take a picture of her. “Let me put on my lipstick, then,” she says. “And send it to me on WhatsApp, if I look good.”
‘She had little idea what the internet was’
Over a spread of curries and naan at a local restaurant in Bradford, a city four hours north of London by train, three women are talking about a community-based digital inclusion programme that they have been working on since the pandemic hit. Safina Khan, 49, and Nazmeen Sadiq, 37, are tutors with the WEA (formerly known as Workers’ Educational Association), the largest provider of adult education in the UK’s voluntary sector. Their student, Saima Bibi, who is in her late 20s and grew up with limited access to the internet and left school after completing her GCSEs, has thrived so much on the course, which the WEA calls Digital Community Champions, that she won an award for her achievements early this year. She has become an ambassador for the programme, actively recruiting more learners to it, and even assisting her tutors.
Bradford’s abject reputation has worsened in the last few decades, in part owing to dramatic news headlines about its crime rates (“Bradford in top 10 worst places to live”, one exceptionally histrionic title screams). According to the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, it is ranked the fifth most income-deprived district in England, with 13 percent of adults of working age having no qualifications – more than double the national average of 6.2 percent. These grim statistics on the socioeconomic circumstances of Bradford’s residents are compounded by recent findings on digital poverty in the city. An estimated 12 percent of its population are internet non-users, while 36 percent of young people in Bradford between the ages of 16 and 24 live in households with no digital device other than their mobile phones.
However, these women believe that what they have set out to tackle is also a regional and nationwide problem, and Khan is hopeful that she has a role to play in creating a promising ripple of change across the country. Together with Sadiq, a former student of hers on a WEA course, she has been conducting a series of lessons, tailored to suit the needs of a small enrolment of between eight to 12 people, mostly women. The objective is to empower adults above the age of 19 with sufficient digital literacy, so that they will be able to take other online classes on a plethora of subjects.
Khan and Sadiq say that their intake primarily includes women of diverse cultural milieux and ages, and their participation is secured mostly through word of mouth. There is a reason, Sadiq suggests, for their students being mostly female. “Maybe you’ve had a child, and you’re in a parent-toddler group … it’s a chain effect for women, where they start talking about the activities they’re pursuing. Especially if you’re in a low-income family, you find motivation in this sort of community setting, to want to do better for yourself and your child.”
“We focus on the uses and functions of Zoom, and Canvas [an educational technology platform], where students can record their learning achievements,” says Khan, who has been volunteering and working as an education coordinator within the Bradford community since 1992. Her involvement with the WEA began in 2005, and she found herself tapping into her knowledge of local networks to assess the level of interest from potential students. “The classes are delivered to suit a purpose,” adds Sadiq. “We have to know what the need is. We wouldn’t teach a veterinary class if nobody is interested in animals.”
Khan’s face lights up when she talks about her students and their successes. Today, WhatsApp groups through which she keeps in touch with her students, old and new, are a mainstay in her life. She reflects on a recent encounter with a female student on the Digital Community Champions course that has given her joy. The woman had internet at home but had no idea how to use her digital service or even what the internet was. “When I first started teaching online, one of them said, ‘This is not for me’. But I persuaded her to stay. I said, ‘Give me a chance, just listen, and hang in there if you can’.” With one-to-one support, Khan says with pride, that student is now proficient in the use of various digital devices.
“It’s interesting, and important, to understand how digital deprivation can look so different among people, especially women,” explains Sadiq. “Among migrant women who sign up, we find that they’re already very good with the phone, and with social media platforms. It’s probably because they have to use these to stay in touch with their families back home.” For such women, she says, the value of the course is in equipping them with the self-assurance to express themselves in English and communicate more confidently with people outside of their immediate families. In contrast, some of the British students might struggle with technology, but look forward to the interactive element of the classes, as a way of maintaining social contact during the most alienating periods during the UK’s multiple lockdowns.
The challenges, however, have been manifold. Sadiq lists them: some students do not have a device of their own that they can attend the course with, as they need to share one laptop with an entire family of five. Others are held back by diffidence or anxiety about their English language abilities. Yet the payoff is satisfying. “It makes us happy,” she says with a smile, “when a woman on the course is now able to write and send an email, or use her laptop for work.” Incidentally, the course has also provided students with a precious opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. “Some of them have never spoken to a woman wearing a hijab,” Khan laughs. “But by the end of it, they realise that we’re not that different. Friendships are formed, we talk outside of class.”
Meanwhile, Saima is exuberant and in high spirits as she demonstrates the use of an app on her phone, which has enabled her to test different designs, textiles and colours for an upholstery project she is assisting someone with. By her own account, she has come a long way since she joined Community Digital Champions. Afflicted by health issues, she was reticent and shy before she participated in the course, which pioneered with a taster session in July last year.
“I just wanted to learn something productive, like how to sew face masks,” she recalls. “But because of all the support I’ve received, I’ve become pretty confident and been able to pick up so many other things.” For young women like Saima, who believes she might one day decide to pursue post-secondary education, digital fluency isn’t simply a matter of acquiring a new skill set. It is the crucial first step to building connections, self-esteem, and comfort with engaging with other members of the community. “I didn’t know what was going on at first,” she says of her first few attempts to navigate Zoom. Yet she is now in a position to help newer students, and is considering the option of becoming a community interpreter.
The women’s community-focused approach to digital learning is well-suited to a smaller city like Bradford, which has around 536,000 inhabitants. Trust, no doubt, is a key factor in convincing more people to be a part of their scheme: Saima’s mother and sister-in-law had taken classes organised by Khan, which is how she was introduced to her. As the women chat and joke through the meal, it’s clear that they relate to one another with affection and warmth.
Later, as Sadiq drives me towards the station, Khan brings up the issue of Bradford’s unfortunate notoriety again and is keen to emphasise that life there is not as bleak as the media sometimes makes it out to be. “We are very independent women,” she muses. “I don’t take no for an answer.” There is dignity and grit in her comment. Perhaps it is this unshakeable persistence that has served as gentle persuasion in helping her students to realise that they, too, have the potential to elevate their community.
Lack of internet access a ‘constant source of worry and stress’
Back in London, I get in touch with 46-year-old Asmin*, originally from the Philippines. As a survivor of slavery as recognised by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government organisation for identifying victims of modern-day slavery in England and Wales, Asmin is using a pseudonym when she speaks to Al Jazeera. She is worried that she or her family might be recognised and, therefore, endangered if she identifies herself, and is also worried about jeopardising any future immigration application. “I’m a hard worker,” she says. She is speaking to me on Zoom using her phone, which is the only digital device she owns. “I’m a single mum, so I need to work, and I did whatever they wanted. I’m very tired. I need to send money to my kids … and for my freedom.” Though there is a tinge of fatigue in her voice as she tells her story, she also sounds upbeat about her prospects.
Arriving in the UK in 2017, Asmin was one of three live-in domestic workers employed by a Middle Eastern family that had relocated to London. Even with 10 years of housekeeping experience under her belt, the work that was expected of her was gruelling. Though she had ostensibly been hired to care for three young children, she was also expected to cook, clean and act as the personal assistant for their mother, a makeup artist.
For Asmin, a survivor of modern-day slavery, her phone is her lifeline to legal aid, and to her family thousands of miles away.
On average, she coped with just three to four hours of sleep every night, and would be woken up at any point in the early hours of the morning by members of the family. They also disapproved of her using her phone in their presence, so she and the other two domestic workers had to call or text their families covertly. Her monthly pay, she says, was around £300 ($413) – £3,600 per year (about $4,950). The annual Living Wage in the UK, as determined by the government, is £18,525 – she was earning less than one-fifth of this amount.
Things quickly went downhill when her employers started withholding her salary. This went on for almost four months, and her remonstrations with them were met with hostility. “She [the female employer] said [to] just work, and if anything happens to my kids, you will go home without any money,” she recounts. Finally, in February 2018, she decided that she had had enough. With just £50 in her pocket, she fled the hotel where the family had been staying. For a while, she relied on the generosity of friends and acquaintances, some of whom she had met at church, for lodging and expenses. Eventually, a friend introduced her to Kalayaan, a London-based charity that advocates for the rights of migrant workers, and offers them practical advice and support.
Asmin’s lack of access to the internet or a functioning digital device has been a constant source of stress and worry for her, in the last three tumultuous years as Kalayaan fought for her to stay on in the UK. “I pay £20 per month for data on my phone,” she tells me. While waiting for a decision on her residency status, she is legally unable to take up employment, which means that she is surviving on just £70 a fortnight, provided by the government’s Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract for survivors of slavery in England and Wales.
Currently, she is living with a friend, but is uneasy about this as a long-term arrangement, mindful not to lean too much on the kindness of others. “I need to find a job,” she repeats resolutely throughout our conversation. “I can do more housekeeping work. I haven’t sent money to my kids in a long time.” But this, too, is a wearisome endeavour. Without a laptop, she is forced to create résumés for job applications on her phone, which takes a longer time. “If I want to do these applications, I have to go outside. I go to a coffee shop, so I can use the Wi-Fi. If I need to speak to my solicitor, that’s also where I go.” She also has a genetic eye condition that she is currently being treated for, which makes reading off a phone especially difficult. Still, she says, she is sanguine that with a positive outcome on her immigration application, she might soon find her way out of this strange limbo, and be financially independent once again.
Avril Sharp, a policy and casework officer at Kalayaan who helped to facilitate the Zoom call with Asmin, says that the digital barriers she has experienced are only too common. “Since the pandemic,” she says, “we have stayed in contact with our clients by phone, essentially through WhatsApp. Some of them are familiar with Zoom, which I prefer … but some don’t have access to the internet” other than data on their phones, but this is often limited by finances.
She cites the example of a domestic worker who had been struggling to make an appointment with her doctor to get the COVID vaccine, because she didn’t know how to arrange it online. “It’s been hugely difficult … when I’m not [physically] with them. I got her on video, on my work phone, and then used my personal phone to ring the GP surgery. And then the person on the other end says, ‘is the person with you?’ And I’d be holding up both phones so they could talk to each other.”
Having worked with Kalayaan since 2016, Sharp has seen many complex cases, and is apprehensive about how digital exclusion may exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of her clients. The pandemic, she explains, has enabled exploitative employers to threaten their domestic workers with impunity, because they are forced to remain indoors. “These workers have no recourse to public funds. If they get dismissed through no fault of their own, even if they have been in the UK for a really long time and have been abiding by immigration laws, they run the risk of being undocumented,” she adds. For workers trapped in these situations, help is even further away if they do not even own a phone.
Hovering on the periphery of life
As we head towards the underground station from which Karon will be catching the train home, she reflects on how much the laptop she received from her daughter’s headteacher means to her. “I am so, so grateful,” she muses. “It means that Sian won’t fall behind on her work. It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Since her husband’s passing, she has not had time to think about any plans other than the immediate future: Sian’s needs eclipse all of hers at the moment. “With a special needs child, you’re on your toes all the time,” she says. “I’ve not been able to grieve properly.”
Soon, however, Sian will finish primary school and enter secondary education. Depending on her daughter’s schedule, Karon hopes to take up employment in childcare services again, as work has always been a form of respite for her. Suddenly, it is as if the world and all its possibilities are just a little more within reach than before.
It’s an expense, you know? Owning a device, having the knowledge to use it well. Women make less money, so do ethnic minorities. That’s why you hear about so many women going to libraries to use the internet. It’s because they can’t afford it at home.
After we part ways, I think about what a phone, or a laptop, might mean to the women I have met. Of course, the easy and anodyne answer is that their access to these devices bestows upon them a right that the rest of us often take for granted – the right to tether ourselves more firmly, in ways we choose, to other people around us and to the things we deem important or hold dear.
For Gloria Brown, being taught how to use Zoom has enabled her to stay rooted in her community; for the trio of Safina Khan, Nazmeen Sadiq and Saima Bibi, technology brings them onto the giddying cusp of activist change. Asmin’s phone is her lifeline to legal aid, and to her family thousands of miles away. The laptop in Karon’s home is not even primarily for her, but is used by her daughter – yet getting it has relieved her of an enormous amount of stress, and allowed her to consider nurturing the other aspects of her life beyond that of mother and caretaker. But digital inclusion does a lot more than to realise these vastly different priorities in real life. Its true value is in how it draws people who are hovering on the periphery into the simplest of all human revelations, that binds us all: to be made more visible, to experience the comfort of being able to wade into the light and say “I am here”.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.