Can the digital era bridge the gender divide?

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With International Women’s day approaching on 8 March, it is perhaps a timely reminder of the stark gender divide across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Rasha Manna, former managing director of Endeavor Jordan explains how the digital era can bridge the gender gap

In the Middle East, women tend to outnumber men in universities and account for almost a third of all students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Arab universities and yet women’s labour force participation rate is among the lowest in the world. The Mena region ranks last in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index and the World Economic Forum projects it will take the region 153 years to overcome the gender gap.

So what does the gender gap refer to? As it relates to economic participation, the female employment rate is just one component. It also refers to equality of pay, income level, the percentage of women in professional and technical jobs and the percentage of women in senior and leadership positions. So, for all the companies proudly reporting female employee ratios of up to 40 per cent and even 50 per cent, it would be interesting to dissect their other metrics before we truly applaud their inclusiveness policy.

Historically, women have either opted or been forced to stay out of the workforce. Socio-cultural factors contribute significantly to the low female participation rate in the Middle East. Women are taught from a young age that it is not essential for them to generate income and instead it is the man’s role to provide for his home and family.

Also holding back female participation are the preconceived notions of what professions are deemed “female appropriate.” Other hindering factors include the lack of affordable childcare services in the region as well as the lack of job opportunities for women, especially in rural areas. This is exacerbated by the lack of a safe and reliable public transportation system across many cities.

Another challenge is the wage gap. Women, in most countries, on average earn 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages. While the digital ecosphere helps overcome some of the above hurdles, others need to be tackled in the offline world if we are to have any chance at narrowing the gap.

 

The Digital Path to Gender Equality

The digital world offers a more flexible working environment for women to become economically productive. It does this through:

1.      Internet connectivity – simply being connected to the Internet gives women access to information to acquire skills and life-enhancing opportunities such as healthcare, financial services and employment opportunities.

2.      Mobility – the digital economy allows for flexible work arrangements and the ability to work remotely. The more flexible work conditions are, the higher the female employment rate with studies suggesting that gender pay gaps tend to be lower in industries where working arrangements are more flexible.

3.      Digital tools – there are a plethora of digital tools services that have added to the flexibility and ease of doing business. Financial inclusion is key to female empowerment. Worldwide, 42 per cent of women remain unbanked, reaching as high as 65 per cent in Mena. Tools such as mobile wallets allow women to pay and be paid without the need to have a bank account. Facebook pages and social media channels offer women access to markets and distribution channels from their homes.

4.      New business models – the gig economy has changed traditional employment relationships to technology-enabled commercial exchanges. Gig economy apps like Jordan’s Bilforon which connects customers with homecooks, connect service purchasers with service providers. The service providers in this case are independent workers who, through the app, can access work opportunities, have the flexibility to choose when and where to accept “gigs” and are able to control and track their earnings.

 

The Digital Divide

In theory, the digital era seems to be pivotal for female empowerment. However, there is a digital divide that needs to be addressed else we risk exacerbating the gender gap. Igniting the digital divide is the fact that the digital world is inherently geared to be leveraged by men for the following reasons:

1.      Unequal access to internet. The benefits of the digital economy can only be accrued if women are connected to the internet. According to the GSMA 2018 Mobile Gender Gap Report, 184 million fewer women own a mobile as compared to men and 1.2 billion women do not use mobile internet. The gender gap in mobile internet use in Mena is 21 per cent, this compares to 4 per cent in Europe and Central Asia.

2.      Low enrolment of women and girls in STEM – While a healthy percentage of women study STEM topics at university, the challenge is getting them to transition from the university system to the job market. There are still barriers facing women from reaching senior leadership positions in the science field.  

3.      Limited awareness of digital tools – women tend to be less familiar with digital tools and less understanding of how to use them which significantly limits their uptake. Reports show that women globally are half as likely as men to adopt mobile wallets.

4.      Lack of role models – if young girls do not see successful women in ICT and STEM, they are not going to be able to envision that this is a viable path for them.

5.      Access to finance – whether debt or equity, it is harder for women to access finance. Studies indicate that women receive 23 per cent less funding and are 30 percent less likely to have a positive exit event.

 

Seizing the Opportunity

So what can be done to ensure women are well positioned to leverage this opportunity? We can start with the following:

1.      Spotlight success stories of women in STEM and ICT. This will help challenge preconceived notions on what professions are deemed acceptable for women and will inspire young girls.

2.      Increase female enrolment in STEM and ICT. We need to raise awareness of career options for girls if they pursue these subjects, we need to set national time-bound targets and offer creative financing solutions to increase female enrolment in such programmes, such as income sharing after the women start work. Furthermore, we need to educate people on the importance of STEM for young girls – which teaches a different way of thinking including digital literacy and understanding of digital tools. STEM subjects equip them with skills such as creative thinking, problem solving and decision-making needed to be able to perform well in the digital world.

3.      Develop online training programmes for both technical and soft skills. About 40 per cent of learners on online learning platforms like Coursera and EdX are female. This is slightly better in the region where about 47 per cent of learners on Edraak are women. When considering women in rural areas, it is not necessarily high-tech training that is required, but more basic training like digital literacy, digital content creation and digital safety.

4.      Foster a culture of life-long learning. Given the fast pace of technological change, universities cannot teach students all they need for their entire career. The most important skill one needs to master today is the skill of how to learn which can help them stay relevant in today’s job market.  

5.      Empower women to rise up through the value chain. We need to promote gender diversity at all levels to overcome the socio-cultural gender biases. It does not end with just getting more women in employment, but also unleashing the potential of women-founded business. Women entrepreneurs are more likely to hire other women and more likely to provide flexible work arrangements. Additionally, we need to see more female investors. Studies show that in the world of venture capital, venture firms with at least one female partner are three times more likely to invest in female-founded businesses. We need more women researchers, innovators and inventors. The more women inventors we have, the more likely technological innovation will be designed with women’s needs in mind.

 

What it Boils Down To

The very low female participation rate is stalling social and economic progress, and this is not a problem that will self-resolve. Concrete steps need to be taken to bridge the digital divide. It is essential to look at this with a gender-focused lens because gender-neutral policies and initiatives will result in gender-unequal outcomes.  Research by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows a strong correlation between a country’s progress in closing the gender gap and its business competitiveness and economic growth. Furthermore, women’s economic equality is good for business. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management score higher in all dimensions of organisational effectiveness. In discussing tools to empower women and when the global female employment-to-population ratio is 48 per cent, then this is not a matter that concerns only women; it is a matter of national interest. It should be a national priority to take advantage of the digital transformation to bridge the ubiquitous gender gap and support a new source of inclusive economic growth. 

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