The Digital Social Divide - it's a complex world!

Some thoughts on the digital social divide

18 Feb 2021

The Digital Social Divide – it’s a complex world!

We were recently joined by David D’Souza, Membership Director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) to contiue a conversation started a few months ago at a memcom meeting to discuss Futurology.

Equality, diversity and inclusion has been at the forefront of a lot of our minds recently and a closer look at the digital/social divide highlights all the complexity of trying to make headway in this area.

As membership organisations, if we want to increase diversity and inclusion in our professions, we need to look at equality of outcome not just equality of opportunity.

David’s position at CIPD – experts in the world of work, gives him a great all round insight into what’s happening across the workforce as a whole, as well as a focus on what membership bodies should be thinking about.

Due to the nature of the issue there is no linear discussion to be had but a lot of tangental ideas and issues. I hope I give you a flavour of the conversation.


David began by outlining where employers find themselves at the moment with most organisations just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to gain some clarity and understanding about what’s coming next.

The current situation has seen some accelerations in what we might have expected to happen, even a year ago and some trends have seen some reversals. Key trends that were emerging 5-10 years ago were:

  • Digitisation – where we saw an unequal distribution of infrastructure – broadband; families with lack of access to tools allowing children access to education; broader access to knowledge and community. The ability to work from home was related to seniority – flexible working was almost a status symbol.
  • Automation – of transactional work.
  • Increase in ‘precarious’ work - zero hours contracts etc, leading to people not being confident about what might happen next in their lives.


Different stresses and strains are now affecting those trends.

What we can see is that the digital/social divide that was evident even 5 years ago has exacerbated and accelerated those divisions.

We can look at the digital/social divide in broad societal terms of:

  • Quality of Life
  • Progression
  • Education

David took a pragmatic view of what may be likely in the coming months/years and talked us through a range of different scenarios.

There is now far more pressure on infrastructure as more people are working and educating from home. This is leading to some children not being able to access what they need for homeschooling and leaving some people unable to join in work meetings, as bandwidth is divided amongst household members.

This in turn is causing a lot of stress, leaving people feeling excluded and worried about being able to contribute.

Despite talks of ‘levelling up’, the economy is very London-centric – given the current calls on the public purse, will the investment needed to level up happen any time soon?

A lot of these issues have been poorly represented in the media because the majority of those working in media work in the South-east and are ‘knowledge workers’.

40-45% of people are working from home on a more or less permanent basis but that leaves 55-60% of people who are not. A lot of people are actually working in far more stressful and difficult environments than they were about the beginning of the pandemic.

There is a clear fragmentation between these two groups of workers.

Firstly, knowledge workers have access to remote working and technology to access learning and progress their careers, versus those in more precarious employment who have less access to technology to improve their employability, skills and knowledge and less ability to engage.

We also know that the ethnic, educational and gender diversity in these roles, where they can’t work from home, is also far from equal e.g. retail, tends to be dominated by women, there is far less flexibility than in knowledge work, creating problems with childcare.

If we think about diversity in professions, as many of us are doing – the real problem is not access at low levels of the profession but access to progression. Where are the role models and support structures and education to enable those suffering from digital poverty to progress?

Going forward we can see that these challenges are only going to increase.

Many organisations have financial difficulties and we all know that training and development is often an area that sees a decrease in investment.

Recent reports suggest that as things stand children have missed at least 6 months’ worth of education. Of course, this is an average and some will be a lot more badly affected than others.

How will this group be treated by employers in the future? Will they have a strategy to deal with this cohort?

Alongside this, automation has been increasing. More transactional roles are being automated and there is a real incentive to progress that. The more automation there is, the less an employer needs to worry about childcare provision, difficulty with a broadband connection, whether an employee has to shield etc. Employers may make investment choices based on the risk profile of resources.

As David said the outlook is fractured, challenging and difficult (a bit like this blog, apologies David).

It is a huge challenge for professional membership bodies to support that base of disadvantaged people, especially as research suggests that no-one seems to have emerged unscathed from this crisis (except, apparently, white middle-aged, middle-class males who are seeing a net increase in earnings).

So, a couple of questions for professional membership bodies:

What does greater digital engagement of professional bodies mean to those people who struggle to access the internet?

How do we increase our members' employability and opportunities for progression?

It’s a complex world!!