Women have been ranked high in technology and innovation participation, agency, social status, science, and knowledge society decision-making. However, even with progressive policies and a growing private sector that supports the women’s space, we continue to grapple with wide income inequalities as well as lag on indicators for access to digital technologies, all which undermine the gains towards empowering women.
Digitalization and the advancement of technology offer a vast array of innovative and dynamic opportunities for women economic empowerment and higher chances for a gendered balance across financial markets, labor markets, and entrepreneurship. Currently, the concept of ‘digital divide’ extends beyond the simple division between the information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The focus has now shifted away from material access to the skills and opportunities that are now viewed as prerequisites for empowering women.
Gender inequalities undermining women empowerment
Most women all over the world have often found themselves trapped in a vicious circle – where current gender gaps hinder them from chances of future improvements. Current gender imbalances like gaps in entrepreneurial skills, lack of developed social networks for female business founders, insufficient number of female role models of entrepreneurship, and prevalence of financial constraints have kept women from recognizing and pursuing many entrepreneurial opportunities.
Prevailing legal and cultural restrictions towards female autonomy in many emerging and developing economies also tend to prevent women from accessing digital spaces that could otherwise help them overcome some of these restrictions.
Lower female enrolment rates in higher education, especially in developing countries, also deter women from fully realizing the chances offered by digitalization. Accordingly, these women are at risk of missing out on the most promising professions of the digital age.
A woman’s place in the digital revolution
If women are to realize their full potential in the digital age, race, gender, and income are some of the key factors in determining access.
Characterized by artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing, the digital revolution could improve female participation in economic life and enhance the economic and social autonomy of women. It opens new windows of opportunity for women to bypass some of the traditional, cultural and mobility barriers, particularly in emerging and developing countries.
Women are generally known to possess superior social skills – such as a heightened sense of responsibility towards the wider community, greater empathy, more effective communication, and a greater willingness to adapt to changing circumstances – that can result to increasing rewards on labor markets in the digital age. These same skills could help avoid the enormous employment losses from automatization, which is predicted to be the future of work.
Policy pathways towards a digitalized sphere
The digital economy cannot be separated from the existing economy and the prevalent perceptions regarding women and work. Thus, the policy pathways should pave a way for a successful adoption of the new digital-age opportunities by women. It is important that gender advocates and technology advocates devise holistic measures and refrain from ‘technological determinism’. Technology by itself cannot be empowering; it is important for policymakers to understand that benefits accrued by the digital economy can easily be canceled out if major concerns such as violence against women and other existing gaps are not addressed.
Policymakers must also work towards providing universal, affordable, and secure internet access which will foster female digital literacy; thus encouraging more women to enroll into tertiary education and STEM occupations. Complementing women’s social skills with higher education and advanced digital skills also go a long way in empowering women. Since many women possess stronger social skills than their male peers, they could benefit from exploiting these extra complementarities. Entrepreneurship-relevant human capital can be acquired by means of higher education and work experience, particularly in STEM fields, as well as through frequent interactions with entrepreneurial peers.
We also need to redesign existing government programs to foster women’s economic and digital inclusion. Existing government programs, if any, can be redesigned to address women’s economic and digital inclusion in addition to accomplishing the primary objectives of these programs. This will eventually not only enhance women’s economic inclusion, but also improve program effectiveness by actively leveraging the women’s strengths regarding their social and family responsibilities to the advantage of the program’s primary objectives
COVID-19 has certainly transformed the way we live and work. For us to mitigate its disproportionately severe impacts on female entrepreneurs, we need to be gender-sensitive with how we do business and transition from the global economic crisis to recovery. The global pandemic presents the most effective models for supporting women to operate successfully within the new digital landscape. This is an exciting opportunity to digitally reach, equip, and empower women so that they can support themselves, their families, and play a full and equal part in rebuilding our communities and economies.