Balancing the digital gender divide is critical to achieving economic equality

The rise of digital technologies has allowed us to build a more connected world. But unfortunately, women have been disproportionately excluded from shaping that world.

Widening socioeconomic exclusion, exacerbated by the growing digital gender gap, is more than a moral shortcoming. It’s a global failure that affects not only businesses but the wider society, as women continue to be an enormous untapped resource for the global economy.

According to the UN Gender Snapshot, women’s exclusion from the digital world – industries, academia, and the broader technology sector – has cost low and middle-income countries 1.0trillion US dollars over the last ten years and will cost another 500million US dollars in the next three years alone.

Furthermore, there is a persisting gender gap in the technology and innovation sectors across many countries, as women and girls are continuously underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – holding only two in every ten jobs within several of these industries.

While the digital gender divide is much wider in low-income countries, advancing digital gender equality is in everyone’s shared interest. But this can only be achieved by closing the growing digital gender gap and increasing women and girls’ connectivity to digital infrastructure; digital skills and use of digital tools; participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; and technical leadership and entrepreneurship.

Looking at the MENA region, there have been considerable efforts to advance women’s role in digital spaces. For example, the UAE and Qatar are among the top five most improved countries regarding digital inclusion between 2017 and 2020, with their vast ICT investments bringing the Gulf region’s ICT investments to 70 billion US dollars.

As nations advance their economic diversification agenda, including women in promising fields such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and robotics, among other rapidly emerging technologies, is critical to realising the region’s growing ambitions.

However, for society to realise systemic change, we cannot solely rely on efforts made by regional governments. The opportunity for the private sector to play a role in bridging the digital divide for women and young girls is widening, and regional governments increasingly recognise their participation as crucial drivers for future sustainable growth.

One that prioritises equality through equity by providing the needed resources and opportunities that fit the specific needs and circumstances of women and girls – ensuring they can compete on a level playing field.

The consequences of not doing so are far-reaching, creating more significant barriers for women and girls in terms of earning potential and employment and limiting their ability to build a better future for their community. As part of Standard Chartered’s commitment to sustainable social and economic development, our Futuremakers initiative is focused on empowering the next generation to learn, earn and grow with a focus on women and youth across three pillars: education, entrepreneurship and employability.

The programme supports disadvantaged young people, especially girls, to learn new skills and improve their chances of getting a job or starting their own business.

By the end of 2022, we had reached 257,539 beneficiaries through the Futuremakers Initiative across Africa and the Middle East, where 96 per cent (241,451) of these are women.

In addition, through Women in Tech, our flagship entrepreneurship programme that helps women entrepreneurs use technology to launch products and services, we have impacted 1,677 female entrepreneurs since 2017, by providing training, mentoring and seed funding.

The programme has significantly attracted male-led enterprises from different sectors such as technology, hospitality, financial services, health care, agriculture, green businesses, and media.

One thing all these women share is that they are determined and passionate about creating impact and using technology to pivot their businesses.

Some have social enterprises that solve health issues and challenges faced by persons with disabilities, while others are creating efficiencies and driving the cost of services down using technology.

Failing to promote access and connect women and girls to our digital world creates a world built on bias, and is not a true representation of society.

Therefore, we must urgently prioritise women’s access to technology and accelerate digital literacy, as when women are connected and are active participants in the digital society, we propel a generation forward and create a more diverse and richer digital world for us to live in.

Khadija Hashimi is Standard Chartered Head Corporate Affairs, Brand and Marketing Africa, Middle East Region and Country Head Pakistan.

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