The digital economy: Are we ready for gender inclusive work?

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The Fourth Industrial revolution is having a tremendous impact on society, politics, economy, and jobs: the way we currently live and work now will not be the same in the coming years.

The stakes are even higher for women and girls to earn a place at the table and make sure that the Digital Economy is an inclusive one.

On 8 March, Policy Leader Fellows of the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute organised an online round table to celebrate International Women’s Day by discussing the impact of the role of gender in building a more inclusive Digital Economy.

Why talk about the future of work on International Women’s Day?

International Women’s Day is celebrated to mark the achievements and struggles of women in shaping a gender-equal world. The road to equality in the workplace is still long: according to the World Economic Forum, “none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes” and it will take another 99.5 years to close the gender gap.

Digital transformation, accelerated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, is creating new vulnerabilities for women and girls, who face multiple and varying challenges across regions in their participation in the digital economy. They are underrepresented in STEM fields and careers; they do not enjoy safety and security in new work models; and they experience systematic constraints in transitioning into the new sectors and roles of tomorrow.

Despite these obstacles, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a new path towards the goal of parity. How can we create future job opportunities that benefit women?

Women in the tech startup world

Entrepreneurs are by definition creators of new markets, products or services, thus shaping the world around them. The Global Consulting Group study says that if we would like to boost the global economy by 5 trillion USD, we should support women as entrepreneurs. Thus, it makes sense that women should join this tech entrepreneurial playing field on the same footing as men, but that’s not at all the reality. The statistics illustrate rather dismal progress on this front: for example, in the European ICT sector only 17 per cent of specialists are women and 93 per cent of the capital invested in tech companies went to all-male funding.

One glimmer of hope lies in the fact that several European capitals top the ranks in services and funding customised to women-led startups: Vienna, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, and Budapest.

“Once women are in the tech sector, they are again discriminated against, not only in terms of salaries, but also in career prospects. It’s rare to see women as CEOs or board members. We need more programs to support women leadership and entrepreneurship in the tech area”, says Diana Rusu.

This is not an individual struggle, it is a system change we need to push forward. To change the status quo, it is vital for men to become better allies for women. This can be done through, for instance, listening to the needs of women, saying no to “manels”, refraining from speaking for women, and engaging in supportive partnerships and mentoring with women.

Women in the digital policy landscape

Embracing digital transformation has become an urgent policy agenda for countries across the globe. In India and Pakistan, governments are introducing policies and programmes to prepare the labour force for the future of work, which is reflected in the “Digital India” and “Digital Pakistan” agendas. However, a gender lens in the design of these policies remains in large part missing, which risks replicating the gender gaps and hierarchies of traditional workplaces in the new modes of work.

Sumbal Bashir notes that in Pakistan, “We need to reassess digital policies with a gender lens, collect data to monitor gender gaps in tech careers and opportunities, and design and implement concrete policies to address the gender gap so women and girls are not left behind in the digital economy.”

“The problem in the ICT sector of India is not with the entry level jobs, where parity between women and men exists, but in the managerial positions where only around 20 per cent of the employees are women. Further, this figure drastically reduces down to 1 per cent at the C-Suite level. We have to look at it holistically. In the organised sector, the implementation of existing labour policies such as maternity/parental leave needs to be improved, and in the unorganised sector, the women-led start-ups should be promoted”, says Nikhil Dubey.

A gendered approach is crucial for the design of digital policies to ensure that the “digital future” presents equal opportunities for all.

Women and girls, and STEM education

Only 28 per cent of the science and engineering workforce are women, even if they represent half of the total of the US college-educated workforce. According to the American Association of University Women, only 21 per cent of engineering majors and 19 per cent of computer science majors are women—two of the fields with the fastest growing and highest paid job opportunities. In order to change this trend, the interest of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has to be built from an early age. Programmes such as the Utah Valley University’s STEM Academy fill in the gap by designing engaging and creative programmes to attract girls in STEM.

Luke Peterson explains: “We saw with the Utah STEM Academy that culture and family backgrounds were the major barriers for girls for pursuing STEM education. Women ambassadors and advocates played a major role in changing the narrative and engaging more girls to be a part of the programme.”

Last but not least: involve everyone in the digital transformation

Any long-term solution to make work inclusive for women needs to be approached from a holistic perspective. Addressing women’s rights without taking into account men’s share of responsibilities will not bring about long-lasting change. Policies and programmes designed from a gender perspective can ensure that the benefits of the digital transformation will be equally available and the opportunities created by the “future of work” don’t leave anyone behind.


This joint-authored article was penned by the five Policy Leader Fellows from the School of Transnational Governance who organised the online seminar ‘Are we ready for gender inclusive work?’, held in commemeration of International Women’s Day: Zuzana Sladkova; Sumbal Bashir; Diana Rusu; Nikhil Dubey and Luke Peterson.

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