We need to achieve digital gender equality, lest women and girls trail behind digital

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The digital gender divide needs to be resolved. There is no reason for women to trail behind in the digital transformation


Digital skills and competencies have moved from optional to essential. In today’s technology-saturated societies, the ability to leverage digital technology is increasingly indispensable to an individual’s well-being. Indeed, today it would be difficult to name two more powerful engines for lifelong learning than knowing how to read and write, and how to harness the power of digital technology and navigate the internet. (UNESCO)

This digital transformation provides new avenues for the economic empowerment of women and can contribute to greater gender equality. The Internet, digital platforms, mobile phones and digital financial services offer “leapfrog” opportunities for all and can help bridge the divide by giving women the possibility to earn additional income, increase their employment opportunities, access knowledge and general information and build a more inclusive, digital world.

Nevertheless, the road ahead is uphill: the record on digital skills education is grim and abundant-Women and girls are being left behind, women are under-represented in ICT jobs, top management and academic careers and as shown in survey reports, men are four times likely than women to be ICT specialists. 

At 15 years of age, on average, only 1.9% of girls wish to choose technology related jobs compared to 6.2% boys. In addition, girls relatively low technology exposure due to hurdles to access, lack of education, lower educational enrolment in those disciplines that would allow them to perform well in a digital world (e.g. science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] and information and communication technologies [ICTs]), coupled with women’s and girls’ limited use of digital tools as well as inherent biases and socio-cultural norms have curtailed girls ‘ability to engage with technology. 

As per the UNICEF Digital landscape study in Sri Lanka highlights that 77% early users of online and internet were boys and 75% late users were girls. Report highlights the fact that internet and online usage for girls was often not prioritised, deterred or not permitted by adults leading to reluctance to engage in technology activities. 

A smaller number of women studying ICT in secondary school and college translates into a gender gap in the workforce. In local context as per the National IT-BPM Study by ICTA 2019, Female IT graduates account for the 35% of the total supply and women account for 29% of Sri Lanka’s ICT workforce. While this figure is low, it obscures a much wider gender divide across the people performing technical level work. 

Even women who work in the digital sector are less likely to hold high-level positions, tending instead to work in general roles that are lower-skilled and administrative in nature. Data collected from online software developer communities indicate that men are 15% more likely than women to be senior developers or in hiring positions, almost twice as likely to be in management positions and nearly four times as likely to be executives. Globally, board membership tends to be less diverse in the technology sector than in other sectors, although this is not the case in all regions. Disparities in representation, promotion and compensation make retaining women a challenge for the digital sector. Women leave technology-related fields in disproportionate numbers, both during their transition from higher education and in their career cycles. 

This suggest a potential scenario of widening digital gap between men and women and girls and boys creating greater inequality. If one adds to this the fact that women receive comparatively less financing for their innovative enterprises and are often confronted with “glass ceilings” curbing their professional ambitions. 

Importance of equipping women and girls with digital skills

Digital technologies offer advancement opportunities and help empower women. The Internet, digital platforms, mobile, and digital financial services, offer “leapfrog” opportunities for all and can help bridge the divide by giving women the possibility to earn (additional) income, increase employment opportunities, and access knowledge and general information. This benefits women and their families, thus enhancing the livelihood and well-being of people and of society as a whole. As the World Economic Forum has pointed out, ‘equipping a girl with even rudimentary ICT skills can make a difference in her productivity when she grows up, and this is especially true in developing regions, and even in jobs that are viewed as low tech’.

For example, knowing how to use the internet to get handicrafts or textiles to market can dramatically increase the earning power of women who produce these goods, in addition to opening up avenues to microloans and other financial services in areas that may be far from brick-and-mortar banks.

Building skills for the digital era

Increasing girls’ and women’s digital skills involves early, varied and sustained exposure to digital technologies.

 Interventions must not be limited to formal education settings but rather should enable women and girls to acquire skills in a variety of formal and informal contexts – at home, in school, in their communities and in the workplace.

Enrolment can be incentivised through scholarships for women who choose to specialise in ICT fields at the undergraduate and graduate levels, in order to increase the number of women pursuing technology-related studies at the tertiary level.

Secondary schools, colleges, universities, and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes should partner with employers in the technology sector to create more opportunities for women to enter ICT firms, and to ensure that female students are informed about these opportunities and encouraged to apply. 

Facilitate ICT workforce participation of women

As Sri Lanka aims to go for a $ 5 billion IT exports by 2025, it becomes a strategic intervention more than ever to increase women IT workforce participation. As per 2019 IT BPM study, women accounted only for 29.4% in the ICT sector which needs to be bolstered to average non-IT industry female workforce participation levels of 38-40%. 

Incentives are important to facilitate the transition from education and training to the labour market, since women are more likely than men to drop out of technology related fields after completing tertiary education. This is likely due to myriad factors, including a professional culture of exclusion and discrimination in many technology industries; the expectation of long hours and a lack of policies in place to ensure an appropriate work-life balance; and biased recruiting processes that favour male candidates over equally or more qualified women.

Promote role models and mentors

The importance of role models and mentors is emphasised repeatedly in the literature on gender and digital skills. The presence of female role models is particularly beneficial for girls and for women. For instance, the negative effect of sociocultural stereotypes on girls can be mitigated by mothers and other female family members setting a positive example of female technology. 

Similarly, in the workforce, highlighting success stories of women in the ICT field including women leaders and entrepreneurs serve as a confidence booster for more women to participate in the ICT workforce.

Bring parents onboard

Parents, along with teachers, tend to be the biggest influencers for students when it comes to selecting subjects and making career choices. Depending on their attitudes, parents can either reinforce or help dismantle harmful gendered stereotypes about intelligence, aptitude and ‘appropriate’ fields of study for women.

They are also often the primary gatekeepers of digital technologies and therefore play a crucial role in facilitating access to ICTs and encouraging their use, either directly or indirectly. In many contexts, parents have been found to treat daughters and sons differently in terms when it comes to usage of digital technology and tools.

Foster entrepreneurship and innovation

Entrepreneurship skills have become even more important in a world where digital technologies offer to a greater number of people the possibility to start or develop their own business. But risk aversion, scarce access to seed funding, and rigid social and economic structures which limit the accumulation of funds, can jeopardise both entrepreneurship and the innovation propensity of individuals. 

Participation of women in innovation activities can represent another important step towards greater gender equality. This can be achieved by fostering the creation of mixed men-women teams of researchers and investors, which is likely to reduce biases and enhance performance as a consequence.

Inclusive digital future

The time and context have come to design and implement a national level digital strategies that actively aim at closing the digital gender divide. These strategies should focus on:

  • Improving digital access to rural areas
  • Promote access to and use of connected digital devices
  • Establishing targets for women in STEM
  • Create fund and grant schemes aimed at enhancing women enrolment in STEM
  • Increase online safety for women and girls.

The digital gender divide needs to be resolved. There is no reason for women to trail behind in the digital transformation. The cost of inaction is high and in the face of sluggish growth, ageing societies and increasing educational attainment of young women, the economic case for digital gender equality is clear. Bridging the gender divide, also in the digital world, can provide new sources of economic growth and support Sri Lanka’s vision to be Asia’ leading tech centre.

[The writer is Chairperson, Women’s Chamber for Digital – Sri Lanka (WCDSL), a cabinet-approved entity working towards increasing female participation in the ICT sector in order to help Sri Lanka reach $ 5 Billion IT export revenue by 2025. The chamber was initiated by the Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) and the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology in 2019 with the majority of the Board represented by private sector female IT leaders and entrepreneurs.]


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