‘Generation Equality’. It’s the theme – and dream – of this year’s International Women’s Day. We’ve come a long way since the UN’s landmark Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. And yet, a full quarter of a century on, not one single nation can be said to have achieved true gender equality. And in many of the world’s developing countries, women’s fundamental circumstances have changed very little.
As we approach the Beijing +25 milestone, I believe digital technologies represent the most powerful opportunity humanity has ever had to finally overturn the many barriers to women’s social and economic inclusion.
But to leverage the power of that technology, we need three things. We need to ensure that women have access to digital devices and platforms. We need to ensure that they are empowered with the digital skills to use that technology to improve their lives. And we need to ensure that they have the chance to share equally in employment and leadership opportunities in the world’s fastest-growing sector.
These three pillars of women’s digital empowerment are the foundation of EQUALS, the global partnership dedicated to promoting digital gender equality founded by ITU and its partners ITC, UN Women, the GSMA and the UN University. The EQUALS movement now spans over 100 governments, private sector players, NGOs and universities, all committed to promoting technology as the vital catalyst for a gender-equitable world.
I believe digital technologies represent the most powerful opportunity humanity has ever had to finally overturn the many barriers to women’s social and economic inclusion.
The EQUALS Access Coalition continues to militate for better access for women to digital technologies like mobile connectivity, which can provide a springboard to so many other life-enhancing services, from mobile money and e-commerce opportunities to mobile learning, e-health, online jobs, and e-agriculture. New platforms that offer, for example, accessible information in local languages on pest control or crop management via mobile devices have huge potential for smallholder farmers working out in the fields, most of whom are women.
ITU figures show that 53% of the global population now has some form of access to the internet. Over 90% of the global population lives within reach of a mobile broadband signal. Yet online access is not shared equally. Of the 3.6 billion people still totally unconnected, 58% are women. We’re battling a widespread digital gender divide, with more men than women online in every region of the world except the Americas. In sub-Saharan Africa, where women’s access could arguably have the most powerful transformative effect, the proportion of women using the internet is a full 25% lower than then proportion of men – and the gap is growing. And new figures on mobile connectivity just in from the GSMA show that globally, 165 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone, with a gender gap of 51% in south Asia and 37% in sub-Saharan Africa.
Likewise, in the vital area of digital skills, women and girls lag behind. Lack of basic digital literacy is increasingly emerging as a leading barrier to internet use in LDCs, with poor digital skills often correlated to the lower educational opportunities afforded girls and women.
At higher skills levels, the situation is almost as bleak. Figures show a steady decline in the number of women and girls choosing to study technology-related fields since computing and IT engineering degrees first began to be offered in the early 1980s.
As we embark on this Decade of Action, our work has never been so urgent, because digital technologies will be absolutely critical to making real and rapid progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
That means that while demand for ICT professionals continues to mushroom, women are being left out of the employment boom. Europe estimates a regional doubling in the shortage of skilled ICT professionals since 2015 – from 373,000 to over 750,000 this year. Figures from the US indicate that the number of computer-specific jobs is growing faster than all other occupations. But while advanced digital skills are in high demand – particularly in areas like mobile apps, cloud computing, big data, and data security, the OECD reports that just 1.4% of female workers have jobs developing, maintaining, or operating ICT systems, compared to 5.5% of male workers. With chronically stagnating female participation in STEM education, that gap seems sure to grow.
What about the situation for women actually working in the tech sector? Sadly, equality of opportunity is far from assured. Tech may be the world’s youngest major industrial sector, but has inherited some very old problems.
According to the European Commission, of women who choose to join the tech sector, only 0.5% are still working in the sector after five years.
The 2016 ‘Elephant in the Valley’ study on corporate life in Silicon Valley reported that not only do women occupy just one in ten senior tech jobs, but:
Clearly, in all three key areas – access; skills; and tech jobs and leadership – a great deal remains to be done. And as we embark on this Decade of Action, our work has never been so urgent, because digital technologies will be absolutely critical to making real and rapid progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
If it’s true that there will be ‘no SDGs without ICTs’, it is equally true that there will be no global development progress that is not built on real and tangible progress towards gender equality. The sooner governments and the tech industry make that leap, the sooner we’ll bring about the change we want. Let us all commit, on this International Women’s Day 2020, to being the change we want to see.