Gender equality is a keystone for a thriving economy because it allows for inclusive and sustainable growth and development.

Gender equality ensures that both men and women have an equal and fair chance to contribute fully to our economies and societies’ growth. Many countries worldwide have made progress by enacting laws and policies that guarantee gender equality, but more still needs to be done.

One of the ways through which countries can ensure men and women are fully productive is through digital transformation. Advancements in digital technologies have opened up a world of opportunities both in the medium and long term. These opportunities hold immense chances for enhanced productivity and can help address some of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

The opportunities can also accelerate the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 5, which focuses on achieving gender equality in all aspects of the lives of girls and women, including securing equal opportunities and participation in economic growth and development.

This year’s United Nation’s International Women’s Day theme is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. The theme recognises and celebrates women making a mark in the digital space. The theme is also aligned to the priority to address the challenges hindering women’s full economic and social participation in digital transformation. These challenges have led to a digital divide.

Growing inequalities in technology play out in three critical areas. These are Access to Technology, Digital Literacy and Gender Stereotypes.

In access to technology, numerous studies show that women and girls often have less access to technology and even the internet than their male counterparts. This is particularly so in developing countries.

A recent study conducted by the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that girls access digital technology at a later age than boys and that their use of technology is more often curtailed by their parents. The study also found that globally, just 57 per cent of women use the internet, compared to 62 per cent of men.

Tied together with access to technology is the challenge of affordability. While women and men face this hurdle, it disproportionally affects more women and girls. Affordability not only hinders access to tools or technology such as computers, laptops, smartphones, and the internet, but it also limits the utilisation of the world wide web to its full extent. This is especially so in developing countries, where internet costs are still high mostly because of inadequate infrastructure.

Digital Literacy is also crucial in narrowing or widening the digital gender gap. Digital transformation has profoundly changed the content and nature of the job market and the skills needed to partake in the tech revolution. As such, the acquisition of digital skills that are up to date is critical if women and girls are to be productive and profitable in digital transformation. There is still a marked difference in performance in ICT and science-related courses between boys and girls. To achieve gender equality in technology, it is, therefore, critical to encourage girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses so that they can find a firm footing in the labour market that is increasingly digital.

It is crucial for educational institutions to develop transformative and all-inclusive digital curricula that will ensure women and girls participate in the digital revolution by ensuring they have the right skills and attitude to learn, innovate and thrive in the digital era.

Despite the advances in women’s empowerment, gender stereotypes and deeply entrenched socio-cultural reasons still contribute to the digital gender divide. To date, more parents are likely to encourage their sons to pursue STEM career paths while encouraging their daughters to pursue humanity-based courses. Such biases make girls less confident in their ability to pursue ICT courses, ultimately lowering their engagement with technology.

Labour Market

As mentioned earlier, the digital revolution has transformed the labour market. This was especially evident after the COVID-19 outbreak. During this period, the digital process gave rise to opportunities and possibilities for people to enjoy the benefits and flexibility of working remotely. Although the platform economy existed pre-COVID, its immense opportunities became more evident post-pandemic. The platform economy is an ideal opportunity for women to participate in -the economy while caring for their families. By enabling women to earn an income, they can also contribute to the welfare and well-being of their families and society.

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently wrote a report aptly titled Bridging the Digital Gender Divide. Their analysis suggested critical areas that require positive policy action to help narrow the digital divide.

These include the designing and implementation of national digital strategies; adapting strategies to raise awareness of the digital gender divide to help address cultural biases; facilitating labour market participation of women; fostering women’s entrepreneurship in innovation by providing training and resources; and publication of an annual Digital Gender Equality report to monitor progress.

As the world marks International Women’s Day this year, governments, leaders, policymakers, educationists and citizens need to continue to collaborate and remove some of the barriers that limit women and girls from fully participating in the digital revolution. It also behoves parents and teachers to be aware of and limit the conscious and unconscious biases that may keep girls from innovating and pursuing the endless possibilities of the digital world.

About the Author: Debbie D'Costa