Published on Digital Development

Leveraging technology to close gaps between men and women

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Technology serves as a key driver of change and opens new avenues to address the world’s most complex challenges. It is changing the nature of work and challenging traditional production patterns. And it is changing the skills that employers seek, how people work and the terms on which they work.
This month, the World Bank Group Advisory Council on Gender and Development will meet for its twice-yearly meeting to discuss the World Bank Group (WBG)’s recent developments and initiatives to close key gaps between men and women. Chaired by Kristalina Georgieva and comprising senior government representatives from client and donor countries, private sector and civil society, the Council is the main external consultative body helping the WBG consider frontier issues and accelerate progress towards gender equality.
Earlier this year, the Council undertook a learning session on the role of technology in promoting gender equality. The discussion mapped out some key challenges in this area:
  • Tech-related jobs remain male-dominated. This is an issue worldwide. In emerging markets, men are almost eight times more likely than women to work in information and communication technology (ICT) roles.

  • Women’s access to the internet and ownership of digital devices remains significantly lower. In developing countries, the internet access gap is at 25% (with a wide variation across regions). Women in low- and middle-income countries are, on average, 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, translating into 184 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones.

  • The future of work is a source of anxiety because of potential job losses as artificial intelligence and robotics change the nature of work. Early preparation is vital: retraining staff and reforming roles can mitigate negative effects, as can enhancing soft skills like teamwork, empathy, creativity, problem-solving and a willingness to learn.
Technology itself can offer opportunities for closing gaps: it can enable access to information and services, help mitigate time and mobility constraints, establish financial identity, and create job opportunities in new sectors. Examples of opportunities highlighted during the Council’s discussion included:
  • Education: UN Women’s WeLearn offers virtual skills training and capacity building, enabling women and girls outside the formal education system to go back to school or become entrepreneurs. In South Africa, a hackathon competition led to a new app that helps women report violence on campus.

  • Jobs: In most countries, women are less likely than men to join or fully participate in the labor force. Women’s labor force participation is constrained by factors including skills gaps, occupational sex segregation, lack of care services, and limited mobility. These factors can amplify the effects of social and cultural norms. ICT can help overcome some constraints, especially those related to mobility. For example, the WBG pilot Women in Online Work Kosovo helped connect unemployed and under-employed young Kosovar women to productive work. Building on this, Kosovo Digital Economy, an ICT infrastructure project, is set to address women’s limited economic opportunity by undertaking complementary skills training.

  • Financial services: Peer-to-peer lending platforms such as Indonesia’s micro-lender Amartha and the Philippines’ Pahiram provide an alternative to conventional banks. Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme partners with micro-lender the Foundation for International Community Assistance to support women become sales agents for digital financial services. In Vietnam, the WBG is testing blockchain technology to help women entrepreneurs prove ownership of business assets and establish a digital identity. See the blog, “Can blockchain disrupt gender inequality?” for an overview of uses of blockchain technology, and the press release, “World Bank Prices First Global Blockchain Bond, Raising a $110 Million” to learn more about the first global blockchain bond.

  • Market and information: An IFC-led initiative, Digital2Equal, brings together 17 leading technology companies operating across the online marketplace to boost opportunities for women in emerging markets. The initiative seeks to ensure that emerging technologies and business models, including the platform economy, benefit both women and men.

  • Personal ID and registration: Today, more than 1 billion people in the world lack official proof of identity, threatening their access to vital services including health, education and finance. The World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative helps countries realize robust, inclusive and responsible digital identification systems. The report Technology Landscape for Digital Identification provides a comprehensive overview of the current technology trend in digital identify. As countries are increasingly leveraging new technologies and adopting digital identification programs, understanding the myriad options is crucial.
Technology also plays a pivotal role in the sharing economy, which has potential to disrupt gender inequality:
  • At the nexus of tourism and technology, there could be opportunities. The Self-Employed Women’s Association’s partnership with Airbnb, for example, aims to help rural women expand livelihood opportunities. Hosts acquire knowledge and hands-on hospitality experience, while generating income and employment opportunities for surrounding communities. On average, one host generates 12 - 15 employment opportunities, such as tourist guides, travel and transport service providers, interpreters, and local artisans.

  • Ride-hailing also has disruptive potential. IFC recently launched the report Driving Toward Equality: Women, Ride-Hailing, and the Sharing Economy, shedding light on how ride-hailing can impact women’s mobility, safety and labor force participation, often with positive results. It also shows that social norms can be a strong barrier against women drivers in many countries. 
There are many unknowns in this rapidly evolving area, so the Advisory Council members stressed that the collection of sex-disaggregated data is crucial to help inform design of reforms, policies and projects.
Forging partnerships, especially with the private sector, is also important, as with the WBG partnership with the trade body GSMA to work with mobile network operators.
Technology alone cannot close gaps between men and women, boys and girls. There is no doubt it comes with risks and uncertainly. But if used and applied wisely, it can help to spur progress towards gender equality.

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