Digital technologies are a double-edged sword for the world’s women. Men’s greater access to these technologies puts women at risk of being left even further behind economically and socially. But if women can tap the full power of digital technologies, vital new opportunities will open up for them.
According to estimates by the GSM Association, women’s access to the Internet and mobile phones is about 85% of the level for men, on average, and a total of 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries are unconnected. This severely limits the prospects of women and girls.
Digital technologies enhance women’s access to finance, with mobile banking enabling them to avoid long journeys to a branch or ATM. Likewise, technology-enabled health care delivered via phone or tablet improves health outcomes, as it reaches women even in the remotest areas, sparing them a long and often risky trek to see a doctor.
The timesaving potential of digital technologies is so great that they may make the difference in enabling women to seek paid employment. Today, women undertake three-quarters of all unpaid care work, producing output of around $10 trillion, or 13% of global GDP – none of which is translated into income, let alone economic power.
By their nature, e-commerce and technology-based businesses offer women more flexibility and autonomy, helping them to manage home responsibilities alongside paid work. In Indonesia, women-owned businesses generate 35% of e-commerce revenue, compared with only 15% of the revenue of offline businesses.
Likewise, in China, 55% of new Internet businesses are founded by women, and Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce platform has an equal number of male and female store owners. In fact, China is home to 114 of the world’s 147 self-made female billionaires, compared to just 14 in the second-place country, the United States.
Women’s economic empowerment is good not just for the women who benefit. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) has estimated that advancing gender equality could add $12 trillion per year to the world economy by 2025. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, getting more women into full-time employment in higher-paid, higher-productivity sectors could add $4.5 trillion per year to GDP, 12% above the current trajectory.
At the company level, a growing body of evidence shows that more gender equality is good for bottom lines. Greater diversity of leadership styles improves the quality of decision-making. If given the opportunity, women could be leading innovators in the age of automation and artificial intelligence, and could help to ensure that algorithms are free of gender bias.
But major barriers prevent women from seizing these opportunities. For example, in India, where only 29% of all Internet users are female, girls in rural areas often face gender-based restrictions on their use of information and communications technologies. One village in Uttar Pradesh implemented a fine for any girl using a mobile phone outside the home.
Beyond the social attitudes that undermine women’s access to digital technologies, women and girls often disproportionately lack the requisite skills to seize the opportunities of the digital age. In Singapore, for example, women lag behind men in education in science, math, engineering, and technology. At Nanyang Technological University, females comprised only 27% of the undergraduate computer-science program in 2015-2016, despite accounting for half of all undergraduates at the university.
What is at stake is not just women’s ability to seize the opportunities offered by the digital revolution, but also their capacity to withstand the coming wave of automation. According to MGI research, in Singapore alone, 800,000 full-time-equivalent jobs could be displaced by 2030 due to automation. The jobs that are most vulnerable to automation are the low-paid, lower-skill jobs that women are more likely to hold.
At the same time, though automation risks disrupting many jobs (or tasks within jobs) for both men and women, it also takes some of the drudgery out of current work, tailoring it to human abilities. The result could be higher wages that contribute to the creation of more new jobs – 300-365 million worldwide – as spending increases, with emerging economies gaining the most.
Furthermore, among the new jobs that will be created will be many in fields like education and health care, where women have traditionally thrived. According to MGI research, more than 100 million jobs could be created over the next 10-15 years as health care and education needs grow.
It is not yet clear exactly how automation will affect women’s employment. But there is no doubt that protecting – and even enhancing – women’s job and income prospects will require upgrading their skills, so that they can take advantage of the new and changing opportunities created by the ongoing digital revolution.
The success of women in e-commerce attests to the power of digital technologies to level the economic playing field, to the benefit of individual women, their communities and societies, and the world economy. More women in work – particularly in the technology industries that are shaping our collective future – would be good news for all.
This article appeared first in Project Syndicate.