Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke is Founder & Managing Director of W4 (Women’s WorldWide Web)
It was in a cemetery in the Philippines that I was first struck by the power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their ability to accelerate girls’ and women’s empowerment.
In 2008, I was managing a programme to enable underprivileged girls to attend school and college. Many of these children and their families were squatting in a cemetery, literally living among the tombstones. They lacked access to electricity, running water, and sanitation.
When we set up an IT vocational training centre, we located it right next to the cemetery because we knew that providing girls and young women with IT skills, ranging from digital literacy to more advanced skills, was an effective way to help them obtain safe, formal employment and protect themselves from dangers such as human trafficking.
And now, against all odds, young women who were born in the cemetery are flourishing in employment, including in the Philippines’ growing IT-BPM sector. What a remarkable and uplifting example of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Again and again, around the world, I have seen how ICTs can open up all manner of resources and opportunities to change ‒ and even save ‒ the lives of girls and women through: innovative e- and mobile learning tools; financial technology for women’s financial inclusion; agriculture 2.0 to promote sustainable agriculture and help communities adapt to climate change; e- and m-health services and digital applications to combat gender violence and support women survivors of violence; e-marketplaces for female artisans and entrepreneurs; apps and platforms to amplify women’s voices and political participation; and, of course, employment opportunities in the ICT sector.
Empowering girls and women is potentially worth trillions
There is no doubt that ICTs can catalyse progress for girls and women everywhere; and, by extension, for wider socio-economic progress, as underscored by SDG 5(b). But, as we navigate the vertiginous shifts of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), we face an urgent challenge: countless girls and women are being excluded from the digital transformation. And this digital gender divide is growing.
Over half of the world’s population still has no access to the Internet. That’s approximately 3.9 billion people, mostly in developing countries ‒ the majority of them are girls and women. Research estimates that women’s chances of benefitting from the advantages of ICTs are one-third less than men’s. The digital gender gap remains largest (at 31%) in the world’s least developed countries. In Africa, only 12% of women are online.
Women are alarmingly underrepresented across the entire IT ecosystem, especially in more technical positions and leadership positions. Globally, women hold only 24% of all digital sector jobs, and in developing contexts men are 2.7 times more likely to work in the digital sector. Only 6% of the CEOs of top 100 tech companies are women; an estimated 90% of electronic goods are created by men.
Moreover, this digital gender divide exists against the backdrop of glaring economic inequality. At our current pace of progress, it will take another 170 years to reach economic gender parity. In the global context of a supply-demand mismatch in digital skills, and as digital literacy becomes the ‘new literacy’, an essential prerequisite for employment, we must step up efforts to ensure girls’ and women’s empowerment through digital inclusion and equality.
Empowering girls and women is, in turn, potentially worth trillions. McKinsey’s “Power of Parity” report estimates that narrowing the global gender gap in labour force participation could add US$12 trillion in global annual GDP by 2025. Narrowing the gender gap in the ICT sector alone would open up a market of US$50-70 billion.
Achieving gender equality in ICTs is essential, both as an end in itself and as a key driver of wider socioeconomic progress. It is crucial if we are to tackle the global pandemic of violence against women, which remains the most widespread human rights violation ‒ unsurprisingly, statistics show that the more economically empowered a woman is, the less vulnerable she is to violence.
Tech and innovation increasingly shape the societies we live in and the values we live by, and women must be equal participants in this transformation. Digital equality is central in the push to achieve our 2030 vision and address the multiple challenges facing us globally.
So, what is holding girls and women back? Extensive studies have identified obvious obstacles which include: deficient infrastructure; lack of affordable access; inadequate education and skills (owing in part to outdated school curricula); biases and stereotypes; and a paucity of content that’s relevant to girls’ and women’s specific needs.
Other barriers include offline gender disparities, such as economic inequality, discrimination, and the fact that girls and women disproportionately bear the burden of unpaid work and care. And there’s the urgent issue of safety and protecting girls’ and women’s online rights.
Digital equality is central in the push to achieve our 2030 vision and address the multiple challenges facing us globally
These obstacles are depriving countless girls and women of their rights and the opportunity to fulfil their potential. And yet, strikingly, women’s exclusion from the digital revolution is, according to many reports, primarily owing to policy failure. The Web Foundation’s 2016 Women’s Rights Online Digital Gender Gap audit laments the fact that “many national ICT strategies or broadband plans include, at most, a rhetorical commitment to gender equity.”
Beyond the rhetoric, we do have a sheer abundance of real solutions, action plans and roadmaps. Examples include: the recommendations of the UN’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and of the Web Foundation and the Alliance For Affordable Internet (A4AI); the #eSkills4girls initiative launched under Germany’s G20 presidency; the recent UNHRC’s gender digital divide recommendations; the G20 Digital Economy ministerial decree roadmap; and the proposals of the UN-IT partnership “Equals”, a global, cross-sector coalition to bridge the gender digital divide.
What we urgently need is more collective action and greater investments ‒ on the part of governments, companies, educators, and civil society. We need to invest in equal, affordable access to ICTs, in digital skills education, in modernising schools and curricula, and in increasing public access to ICT facilities and training.
Equally, gender-responsive policy is critical. Gender needs to be integrated in ICT-related strategies, policies, plans and budgets, with clear gender-equality targets. Governments need to invest more in generating gender-disaggregated data to track progress. Of the 14 indicators of progress associated with the primary gender equity goal SDG5, most countries are measuring just three.
The ICT sector must also do more to ensure a culture of equality and diversity. With greater collaborative effort, we can overcome biases and barriers, such as dissuasive stereotypes, and create relevant products, content and services that take into account the specific needs of girls and women.
Clearly, SDG5(b) can be a game-changer for girls and women, but also for entire communities and societies. The global digital transformation holds the promise of a safer, brighter, fairer world. But only if we ensure that the digital revolution is a development revolution for all. We cannot afford to leave girls and women behind.
This article is from the Development Policy Forum discussion paper ‘International development and the digital age’, in which international tech and development experts consider how to use new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and generate ‘digital dividends’ for the developing world. The discussion paper will also build on the Policy Insight debate ‘Making the digital revolution work better, faster for development’, which was held on 7 November in Brussels.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Stars Foundation