Empowering girls and women through ICTs

Empowering girls and women through ICTs isn’t just a question of social justice, it’s also smart economics. Kirsten Bickford explains why.

Credit: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam

Credit: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are often cited as the essential backbone behind socio-economic growth. It’s the industry seen to embody the agility and innovation underpinning our future work force and driving improved outcomes for sustainable development. These are ambitious aspirations and for the ICT sector to truly thrive in this way it must address a persistent problem within itself: gender inequality.

In simple terms, it’s a question of access and jobs.

There are more than 250 million fewer women online than men and the gap has widened considerably since 2013 in Africa, the Arab States and the Americas. In the least developed countries less than 13% of women are online (PDF, 4.65 MB). The gender gap is replicated in the use of mobile phones; 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone across low and middle income countries. These women are excluded from the modern economy and society, with its access to critical information – be it educational, medical or social. Without access to this technology, which we know promotes personal development and makes women feel safer and empowered, they lose the opportunity of having their voices heard on online platforms.

Women’s involvement with ICTs, will shape levels of inequality in our future society

Even when women are connected they are less likely than men to use ICTs to their advantage. This is especially true when it comes to increasing their economic empowerment by accessing financial services and employment opportunities. To understand what’s driving this online behaviour, we need to address existing gender discrimination offline.

Of some 780 million illiterate people in the world, two-thirds are women. As long as women continue to bear the brunt of global poverty in the ‘real’ world – owning fewer assets than men; working more for less money; being restricted in their mobility; receiving less digital literacy and skills training – they will be unable to match men in maximising opportunities brought through connectivity.

It is no surprise then, that women are underrepresented across the ICT sector. Globally, women make up 40% of the total workforce, yet they comprise just 25% of the ICT industry. This lack of representation grows with seniority – tellingly, women now only run three tech companies in the Fortune 500. And one of the critical factors determining how many women enter ICT industries in the first place suggests this trend is not changing anytime soon: The number of female STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) students is in steady decline around the world.

The moral imperative for change is clear, but what about the economic cost?

With less gender equity, companies are less productive; a minimum of 30% female participation in management positions could increase profitability by 15%. The ICT workforce also risks having little resemblance to the community that uses its products, if men hold disproportionate influence over their design and use. The ICT sector is growing rapidly and has huge economic growth potential, but less female participation means greater economic inequality and an alarming shortfall in the number of skilled professionals to fill upcoming jobs. UNESCO estimates that gender equality in the ICT sector would open up a market of USD 50-70 billion.

The digital gender divide is not a new issue, but positive change is slow. As technological innovations continue to impact every aspect of our lives, it’s more important than ever to keep the debate alive. Ultimately, questions around women’s access to, and involvement with ICTs, will shape levels of inequality in our future society. They will also support progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of enhanced use of ICTs, to promote the empowerment of women. That’s why Oxfam GB is supporting this year’s International Girls in ICT Day.

Girls in ICT day

On the 27th April local secondary school age girls will visit our Oxford head quarters for a day of inspiring workshops and presentations. We’ll challenge stereotypes around what a career in ICT means and celebrate the diversity of our own workforce – showcasing the creative roles of women in ICT who contribute to our own humanitarian and development work.

Research suggests girls are drawn to careers where they can make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Oxfam does just that and with the integration of ICTs across the organisation, we’ll show the girls that there’s a lot more to being a ‘girl in ICT’ than writing computer code.

Find out more about International Girls in ICT Day

Hashim Zaidi

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