It is no secret that the digital economy has grown exponentially over the past two years and has been an indispensable vehicle of post-pandemic recovery. With more jobs becoming digital-enabled, we are witnessing a transition towards a digital economy. According to a recent study by the World Bank, women have less access to opportunities linked to the digital economy. Not surprisingly, this is owed to women’s underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, jobs, and career opportunities across the world. This can have serious consequences on their future access to the labor market in the decades to come, thus potentially enlarging the digital gender divide.
Women need to participate in the digital economy to prevent passing down traditional gender biases to Industry 4.0. In this period of accelerated growth of the digital economy, narrowing the digital gender divide is critical to building inclusive digital economies. As such, the participation of women in STEM is more pressing than ever before. A study by the UNESCO in 2019 shows that the MENA region has some of the highest proportions of female engineering graduates. However, this does not translate to women’s representation in the workforce. In fact, there is a clear disparity between women earning degrees in STEM and working in the field. A recent study by the World Bank shows that 13 out of 15 countries in the MENA region have the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce.
It is not only necessary for women to have jobs in the digital economy, the types of jobs they have is equally important. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the gender gap widens as women progress in their academic careers, with lower participation at each successive progression – from doctoral student to assistant professor to director of research or full professor. Within advanced technology, women have limited representation in jobs that require higher skill levels and are better paying. Representation in top-management and policymaking roles is critical as it determines the extent to which women can have an equal voice in developing systems that affect their lives.
Global data by the UN shows that only one in five professionals in Artificial Intelligence is a woman. This is especially concerning as the impact of artificial intelligence on society continues to grow, women’s needs and perspectives may be overlooked in the design of products that impact their daily lives. Evidence has already emerged that algorithms tend to have embedded racial and gender biases. For example, a few smartphone applications have been called out for withholding financial services advertising from female users. Additionally, facial recognition technologies have been found to disproportionately misidentify women, especially women of colour. This is only a natural outcome since artificial intelligence and machine learning tools depend on data to train algorithms; as such, the quality of the training data shapes the knowledge embedded in the systems.
To answer the question of how to ensure women’s participation in the digital economy, we must first facilitate women’s access to STEM. As the findings have shown, although a lot of progress has been done in women’s education, that alone is not enough. Women should have access to skills, entrepreneurship opportunities, and leadership positions.
Access to leadership and career opportunities:
Several studies have shown that women across the world tend to dominate non-science disciplines such as social sciences, business, and law. According to a study by McKinsey in 2019, women in science tend to specialise more in health sciences and less in in technology and math programmes. This can be overcome by appointing more women in leadership positions and making gender balance the core of nations’ agenda. For example, the UAE has appointed Sarah Bint Yousif al Amiri as the Minister of State for Advanced Technology. Moreover, Mariam Saeed Hareb Almheiri currently serves as the Minister of Climate Change and Environment in the UAE. Since climate change and technology are on top of UAE’s agenda, having female leaders sets an example of women’s competency and skilfulness. Additionally, 90 percent of the science team at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre is composed of women. Ensuring the representation of women, especially in leadership positions where they are given the opportunity to excel and prove their skills, is sure to combat stereotypes and bias.
Digital and technical empowerment
Organisations who are committed to facilitating connections between industry and education can help increase women’s employability and career advancement. For example, Majid Al Futtaim computer coding programme is a great example. Launched in 2021, the programme aims to train more than 5,000 women in advanced software technology development in the next five years. It targets university students, recent graduates alongside mid-career women. Additionally, Women in AI, a non-profit organization based in Dubai, work to increase women’s representation and participation in AI through forming partnerships between educational institutes, governments, industry corporates, startups, vendors and other institutions. The organization works across 140 countries with more than 8,000 members and 160 volunteers.
It is essential that policymakers address cyberviolence, biases and stereotype to provide a safe environment for women and girls. One important way is for legal frameworks and regulations that promote internet safety to include these challenges as part of their legislation. Additionally, policy programmes supporting post-pandemic economic recovery should explicitly address the digital gender divide. As the growth of the digital economy continues to accelerate, it is necessary to hold discussion to tackle this emerging divide to develop national strategies and programmes supporting the economic empowerment of women.
Women’s early access to the digital economy is key to preventing the continuity of traditional gender stereotypes. Closing the gender digital divide will help economies across the world build more resilient and inclusive systems on the road to post pandemic recovery.