Here’s How the Pandemic Can Give Women More Opportunities in Digital Technology

 The pandemic has set back women in Asia in many ways but it might also provide opportunities to expand opportunities in digital technology.
The pandemic has set back women in Asia in many ways but it might also provide opportunities to expand opportunities in digital technology.

By Aimee Hampel-Milagrosa, Talal Rafi

COVID-19 has triggered a massive shift to the use of digital technology in work, education and other aspects of life. Gender-sensitive policies are needed to make sure that women benefit from these changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how the world can function using rapidly-evolving digital infrastructure. We learned that remote working can be effective, fintech can be used in the developing world, and that people can receive an education from far away using technology.

Long before COVID-19, women were being socially left behind in the use of technology. Sadly, despite the increased use of technology, the pandemic has not narrowed the digital gender gap. It has, however, shown us that changes to how we work, bank, learn, and network can be embedded in women’s lives through smart gender-sensitive policies.

The reasons behind the digital gender gap are manifold. Low representation of women in the tech industry due to lack of access to digital resources, lack of finance and the notion that the tech sector is a masculine domain, contributes to this. Across the United Kingdom, women leadership in the tech sector stands at only 5% on average.

In the developing world, women are 20% less likely to use mobile internet or own a smartphone. In the United Kingdom, only 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice. By 2022, according to another study, 60% of global GDP will be digitized, leaving very little time for women to bridge the gap.

Women’s lack of time seems to compound the problem. A 2020 ADB study in Bhutan found that women perform at least two and a half times more unpaid work than their male counterparts, putting women at a time disadvantage when it comes to upskilling digitally. Even among women who are the primary earners, 43% still do all or most of the household work.    

How can we reduce the digital gender gap?

COVID-19 has abruptly changed the way people work. A PWC survey of 850 workers found that only 19% said they would prefer to work in the office full time after the pandemic and only 17% of senior management are unhappy with the work-from-home situation.

Retaining part or full remote working options when companies return to normal will provide more flexibility in working hours and will offer the work-life balance that women need to fulfil domestic and professional roles. When the insurance company Zurich advertised its vacancies with flexible working options, it saw a 20% increase in women applying for management roles.

Domestic care work and commuting distance are barriers to women seeking senior positions, so remote working solves a big part of this dilemma. By empowering women with the necessary resources, workplace flexibility, and training, the digital gender divide for the future can be diminished.

One of the reasons for the lack of female representation at the management level is a lack of networking opportunities.

COVID-19 has caused rapid digitization on how money is moved and yet women are under-represented in fintech usage. For example, the International Labour Organization reports that Viet Nam has a high female labor participation rate at 79% but still, 70% of Vietnamese women remain unbanked. Women in rural areas, especially, tend not to have bank accounts as they have to travel far to visit a bank.

This results in fewer women getting loans because they do not have records of their spending history. COVID-19 has led to an increased use of fintech, presenting an opportunity for the inclusion of women to reduce the digital gender gap.

For example, the uptake of digital solutions for banking will allow women to make, spend, save, and control their money from the comfort of their homes. Whether via computers or cell phones, innovations such as mobile money and e-commerce platforms help increase women’s financial inclusion and productivity and diminish the digital gender gap.  

Online learning and information sharing will also shape the digital gender gap. Many girls, especially those in rural areas, leave schools because of inconvenience, costs, and safety. The proliferation of online-learning models due to COVID-19 means that many girls will not only be able to continue their education but will also be introduced early to digital infrastructure.

In the poorest regions, there is still a lack of digital resources but policies that increase internet penetration in rural areas, and greater government and NGO support for capacity building may push the trend of online learning among girls further. If women have digital skills, they can also use them to access other information to upskill themselves digitally.

One of the reasons for the lack of female representation at management level is a lack of networking opportunities. Important informal networking events may continue after office hours and may be exclusive to a close circle of upper executives. But due to COVID-19, in-person meetings, coffees, and networking events have all but vanished. 

The new normal is for people to meet and network online, making it easier for women to enter in important conversations while based at home. Making sure that women are included in online meetings, and are given a voice, gives women the opportunity to interact with colleagues and make themselves heard.

Rapid digitization through COVID-19 has overhauled the way we work, deliver financial services, acquire knowledge, and forge networks. Having smart gender-sensitive policies can ensure that we reduce the digital gender gap while forging the right way forward.