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Empowering women in the digital age

150203-tanzania-wingard-0525jpg_16153376 (CC BY-NC 2.0) by USAID_IMAGES

While women's digital exclusion is relative to each G20 member state and its accompanying socio-economic context, it can be observed universally in varied manifestations.

Women make up a majority of the 4 billion people excluded from the digital economy. Policy narratives assert that the digital economy has the potential to transform the world of work. For instance, the Indian tech sector estimates that 30 million employment opportunities can be created by 2024-25. Conversely, there are concerns that the existing ‘digital divide’ within and across nations will simply exacerbate existing social inequalities and reinforce gender hierarchies. Evidence suggests that due to social, cultural, and economic barriers, women in the world’s least developed countries will be one-third less likely to benefit from these opportunities accrued by the new information society.

In the last few years, the push to mainstream gender issues across the G20 has grown stronger. However, the G20 is not a homogeneous grouping, not unlike women. At the same time, a woman anywhere in the world today is reportedly, “less likely to be online, is more likely to have low or no digital skills and is at greater risk of being socially and economically excluded by the digital disruption currently taking place”. A recent study indicated that the gender gap in developing countries will continue to grow, and by 2020, over 75 percent of women will still be unconnected. The digital divide, which was earlier understood simply in terms of physical access to new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) or informational ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, has evolved. As the term “access” is often conflated with usage, it does no put adequate emphasis on time opportunity and choice. The digital divide now, is more accurately described as a combination of a skill gap and a physical lack of access to ICT — with the two gaps contributing to one another in circular causation. In addition, what contributes to digitally excluding women more, is that regardless of access and level of skills, usage depends on time opportunity, autonomy of use, and social support.

The continued policy focus on physical access to ICT and measuring “connected” women paints a misleading picture. For instance, a 2012 report by Women and the Web revealed that one in five women in India thought internet usage to be inappropriate, non-beneficial, and something that their families would disapprove of. Further, 40 percent of women in this study expressed discomfort or a lack of familiarity as a reason for not using the internet, even if they had access. Similarly, a recent Google study found that of the 828 Indian women survey, 49 percent saw no reason to use the internet. Another survey conducted in semi-rural Madhya Pradesh revealed a similar trend — majority of the women who owned a mobile phone did not know how to operate it given their lack of textual literacy.

While women’s digital exclusion is relative to each G20 member state and its accompanying socio-economic context, it can be observed universally in varied manifestations. For instance, in the United States where age and location are bigger determinants than gender in terms of access and usage, women’s under-representation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a growing concern. In 2012, only 18 percent of American women earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. STEM jobs are estimated to grow faster than any other US sector with technology companies alone needing to hire 650,000 new people by 2018. If the present situation persists, they will exacerbate women’s deficit in high skill, high-paying jobs.

The enabling potential of the educated use of digital technologies in tackling gender gaps in labour force and financial exclusion has been highlighted by the G20, which has also acknowledged that gender-neutral policies lead to gender-unequal outcomes. This is crucial because contrary to common perception, global rates of female labour force participation have stagnated, and even fallen in some nations, including India. Under Germany’s current Presidency, both gender and digital have been central to the developing agenda — as evident in the communiques of G20 engagement groups like Labour20 (L20), Think20 (T20), and Women20 (W20). When the first-ever G20 “Digital Ministers” meeting was held in April 2017 in Düsseldorf, the released declaration highlighted that 250 million fewer women than men are online today. The declaration commits to promoting, “action to help bridge the digital gender divide and help support the equitable participation of women and girls in the digital economy”.

The value of the G20 platform has been in setting norms. Given its heterogeneity, moving forward, the group must find ways to integrate country-specific pathways with broader common goals. At a time when the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have already articulated a comprehensive agenda, to be impactful, the G20 must focus on policy solutions that do not ignore distinct socio-cultural characteristics of member states. For instance, in developed economies, technology has now become a skill-provider itself; it is often embedded in classroom learning. Consequently, many G20 conversations on digital inclusion take this for granted. However, there are countries within the G20 where constant supply of electricity and high-speed internet connectivity are not guaranteed. In addition, women are often unable to access or complete formal schooling. This chasm must not be ignored, and there should be equal focus on alternate strategies for life-long learning for women and girls. Further, most studies on women’s empowerment and digital inclusion in context of G20 context have remained anecdotal. The Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) was introduced in 2005 to track digital inclusion. However, the DOI does not collect sex-disaggregated statistics. There is an opportunity to undertake empirical research to map out future policy pathways.

Lastly, the current G20 President Chancellor Angela Merkel’s active involvement in the W20 Summit in April 2017, and the Summit’s unparalleled focus on increasing financial investments and using ICTs as tools to accelerate progress towards gender equality demonstrates that Germany will make the case for greater focus on policies for empowering women in the digital age at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in July 2017. However, for this to be sustainable, it is crucial to devise ways to ensure greater funding, monitoring and evaluation, knowledge-exchange mechanisms, and context-specific implementation plans.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

Vidisha Mishra
7 July 2017

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