How modern technology enables women empowerment and promotes gender equality

A UN led initiative that puts modern technology at the center of gender equality

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Modern technology has completely transformed our lifestyles. In general, it has made work, life, and access to information and communication a thousand times easier than ever before for those of us that are lucky enough to have access to it. Today, many are focusing on the impact technology can have on gender equality and women empowerment. 

The UN’s fifth SDG, Gender Equality, places at the heart of its goals technology led women empowerment: the present digital era comes with renewed opportunities of communication, education, or work which represent as many occasions for women to step out of their assigned roles.

UN Secretary General António Gutteres has stressed on how women’s empowerment and gender equality are “essential to global progress” in his message for International Women’s Day in 2019, which focused that year on “innovation by women and girls, for women and girls”. 

Technology and Women’s Education

Technology is essential for the promotion of gender equality and women empowerment in many fields. First, it can have a positive impact on women’s education and work. Although the education gap between sexes is reducing, in many countries, there still is a 10% difference between men with a secondary education and women. 

What’s more, education does not guarantee access to proper work opportunities: the current labor force participation for men is 75%, while it is only 49% for women. Women also tend to be employed in low-quality jobs with questionable conditions. These alarming gaps are due to many conditions such as archaic gender roles, the challenge of work-family balance or the lack of transport. 

Technology can help, because it can not only offer e-learning and education opportunities leading to online formations and degrees, but it can also propel women’s careers through remote working, for those that are constrained to stay at home. 

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Even better, tech-led education promotes women empowerment: women and girls with a secondary education are four times more likely to use the internet for self-empowerment. Of course, ideally, we would have to rebalance gender roles to offer long-term equal work and education opportunities for men and women, but in the meantime, technology can be of crucial help.

Using technology for women’s education and work also means closing the gender technology gap, because the number of jobs that require tech degrees is increasing drastically. It is no news that women and girls are very underrepresented in the fields of STEM: women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce  (science, technology, engineering, and math), 14% of the software engineering workforce and 25% of the computer science-related jobs workforce. 

I’m sure all of us have noticed that when graduating high school, more male students than female tend to be drawn to careers in engineering or programming. It is crucial that we close the technology gap because digital tools and technology are becoming increasingly important in jobs worldwide. 

Today, an IT or STEM degree is among the most valued and leads to some of the highest paying jobs. Like the OECD Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa Gabriela Ramos said, “Women are not benefitting from the digital transformation as much as they could be” and bridging the technology gap is essential to ensure that women and men have equal opportunities and benefits in these fields. 

Technology is moving forwards fast, and if women and girls are not properly exposed to its uses and functioning, the existing inequalities will only be exacerbated. Finally, the gender technology gap also negatively impacts countries’ potential for economic growth: research has shown that if 600 million more women were connected to the internet within 3 years, this would be equivalent to a rise in GDP of more than US$13 billion.

Many initiatives worldwide are working towards closing this gap: for example, movements sponsored by the Global Fund for Women in India or Malawi are actively engaging in the training of young women and girls in these fields through classes and skill-building courses or extra-curricular activities. Diversity and inclusion has fortunately become at the center of many schools and tech companies’ goals. Digital tools can also serve to reduce the gender technology gap through online schooling and remote working.

What are the Benefits of Digital Empowerment?

Digital literacy has become almost as important as traditional literacy.

Over 90% of jobs worldwide already have a digital component* and most jobs will soon require sophisticated digital skills. If governments equip girls with digital skills through prioritising education in ICT subjects, they will help girls thrive in economies where routine work has been automated and digital skills are prized.

Technology can also be a powerful tool for girls to become activists and lead change on issues that affect them. Social media platforms, for instance, allow activists to reach a wide audience and organise action towards common causes.

Technology as a Promotion of Women’s Safety and Rights

Furthermore, technology is essential to give women more means of communication and help raise awareness on gender-based violence and harassment. The internet can first provide young girls and women with health advice and basic sexual education, especially in remote areas. 

For instance, mobile applications like Amaze, MYSD, or Real Talk provide women and girls with accurate information about sexual and reproductive health and rights without the need for intervention by adults or peers. Countless other initiatives have been launched to promote women’s sexual education, which is the first step to awareness on gender-based violence.

Technology can also save lives: emergency phone numbers and departments are available in most countries and can play a drastic role in protecting women that are subject to harassment or violence lives’ when they have access to appropriate resources. Digital tools could be used to begin dialogues with and between inhabitants of the most remote areas, including illiterate communities, and inform rural or isolate women and girls of their rights.

Digital tools create important connections between women and can strengthen movements and initiatives. For example, #metoo or #balancetonporc would never have happened without technology. These movements enable women to reach out regardless of their situations and to realize that they are not alone. Through the internet or social media, women can foster meaningful relations with each other. 

Digital Tools and the Internet, Potentially Unsafe

However, with technology and the internet also come greater risks of cyber-harassment and this can be very unsafe for women. Violence against women is not always visible, and the UN estimates that 95% of harassment, abusive language and derogatory imagery online is aimed at women. 

Women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men. Moreover, diminishing content is widely spread on online platforms and easily reaches young women: according to this 2017 survey, more than half of women aged between 18-29 years have reported having been sent sexually explicit images without their consent. 

In order to tackle this issue, many guidelines have been issued and are being spread online to help women prevent or face these online issues. However, many perpetrators and victims’ peers still don’t understand that online violence is as real as the offline kind. It is essential that safety measures and policies in the digital world are strengthened and that online violence is recognized and designated as real violence by all of us.

The Necessary Remedial to today’s Unequal Technology Distribution

Today, however, approximately 200 million more men than women have access to the internet, and women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone. For all the reasons stated above and in order to enable technology-led women empowerment and gender equality, it is essential that we guarantee equal access to modern technology to women even in the most isolated areas of the world. 

Moreover, bridging this gap could pose many new economic opportunities: The World Bank (2009) estimates that every 10% increase in access to broadband results in 1.38% growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for developing countries. Many measures have already been taken to reduce the digital gender gap. For instance, some major tech companies (Facebook, Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera and MediaTek) have initiated internet.org, a nonprofit organization that aims to expand the Internet globally. 

Other initiatives are government-led: In Costa Rica, efforts to address the affordability barrier of the online world and reduce the costs of the internet have helped the country’s population go from only 28.4% with online access in 2007 to 66% in 2016

Still, we have to double our efforts to further reduce this gap and remember that in the end, the internet and technology remain tools with advantages as well as challenges, and can promote women empowerment but also increase the frequency of sexual harassment or cyberbullying.

Therefore, it is essential that for the proper enabling of tech-led women empowerment and gender equality initiatives and movements, we work towards making digital tools like social media or the internet safer.

Also see Women Work: Striking the Gender Balance.