On International Girls in ICT Day, events are being held all over the world to encourage girls to study and work in technology, and to bring more girls into the digital economy. There are several pathways for girls to have an opportunity to take active roles in technology – as users, creators and future employees in the ICT industry.

However, the gender gap across the ICT ecosystem still excludes girls from fully embracing the digital economy. Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation’s recent global study into adolescent girls’ access and usage of mobile phones found that access is more complicated than previously thought, often reinforcing the very same gender norms that hold girls back. Girls have less access to mobile phones than boys, and when girls are online they often face higher levels of harassment and bullying, and may risk their reputations simply by being on certain platforms or speaking out on issues.

These negative social norms mean girls have fewer opportunities to explore and learn and are increasingly left with less digital literacy than boys. Phones, apps and digital platforms are not always designed as safe spaces for girls to learn and speak out. This all means that girls are being held back, both as users and as creators of technology, and are less able to fully participate in the digital world.

At UNICEF and Girl Effect we believe putting girls front and centre of the design process is crucial to bringing girls into the digital economy. We’re working to co-design products with girls, and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

Here are five of the best practices we’ve identified to help other practitioners ensure girls are not left behind in the digital world:

1. Understand girls’ current access and use of technology first

At UNICEF, we’re building a mobile period tracker app for adolescent girls in Mongolia. Doing user research with girls first gave us detailed insights on how a potential period tracker solution would (or would not) be relevant to them, and how it would be used or who would use it. We also did user research with people in the girls’ world, such as boys, parents, teachers, to help us really understand girls’ lives – online and offline – and refine our focus.

2. Involve boys, parents and community leaders in girls’ communities

At Girl Effect, we heard from girls in our global study Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected that social attitudes heavily influence how girls can access phones, which means community gatekeepers need to be part of the creation process too. To develop Springster, we gathered insights from 25 workshops across Asia and Africa with more than 350 girls, 100 boys and a number of parents, experts and influencers.

3. Work with girls at every step of the process, including regular feedback once the solution is live

As well as formulating ideas and testing pilots with girls, we saw the need to constantly improve solutions by getting regular feedback from female users. Girl Effect’s mobile-first brand Springster provides a judgement-free space for girls to connect online, and we measure performance in real time, which gives us data about what girls need and value. Using social and site analytics, and tactics such as A/B testing, emoji reaction questions and comment analysis, we can see what works for girls, and what makes a real impact on girls’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

4. Use a range of activities in co-ideation workshops

In UNICEF-organized workshops with girls in Mongolia and Indonesia, we used role plays and storyboards, and girls designed and presented their own alternatives using phone templates. Girls loved participating in the design process and they also loved learning  about periods and developing skills in voicing their needs and proposing their own designs to meet those needs. In their eyes, it not only expanded the possibilities for technology to be useful and relevant in their lives, but it also helped them claim ownership of tech for themselves as girls.

5. Design for girls’ online safety too

We regularly hear from girls that they want safer online experiences, and we need to design experiences that are just as safe for a girl who has intermittent access to different phones, as one who has a phone of her own. Through Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundation’s study, we learned many girls borrow phones for online tasks, and are often re-learning skills every time they pick up a mobile device. We need to ensure our designs are user-friendly and engaging, but also have privacy features that are intuitive. This way girls can protect their privacy as they develop their skills and feel free to explore without doubting their online safety.

Want to know more about the work we’re doing to design for and with girls, and close the gender digital divide?

Check out Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundations global study Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected, and learn more about partnering with us

And check out UNICEF’s recent blog on our digital platforms for adolescent girls in Zambia, as well as our thoughts on how to broaden girls digital skills in general, to learn more about our work with and for girls.