A woman’s place is in the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - San­drine Devil­lard is a se­nior part­ner at McKin­sey & Com­pany. Anu Madgavkar is a McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute part­ner. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate

Women’s ac­cess to the In­ter­net and mo­bile phones is about 85% of the level for men, on av­er­age, and a to­tal of 1.7 bil­lion women in low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries are un­con­nected. Clos­ing these gaps would en­able women to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties in the in­dus­tries that are shap­ing our col­lec­tive fu­ture, ben­e­fit­ing all.

Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are a dou­bleedged sword for the world’s women. Men’s greater ac­cess to these tech­nolo­gies puts women at risk of be­ing left even fur­ther be­hind eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially. But if women can tap the full power of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, vi­tal new op­por­tu­ni­ties will open up for them.

Ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by the GSM As­so­ci­a­tion, women’s ac­cess to the In­ter­net and mo­bile phones is about 85% of the level for men, on av­er­age, and a to­tal of 1.7 bil­lion women in low- and mid­dlein­come coun­tries are un­con­nected. This se­verely lim­its the prospects of women and girls.

Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies en­hance women’s ac­cess to fi­nance, with mo­bile bank­ing en­abling them to avoid long jour­neys to a branch or ATM. Like­wise, tech­nol­o­gyen­abled health care de­liv­ered via phone or tablet im­proves health out­comes, as it reaches women even in the re­motest ar­eas, spar­ing them a long and of­ten risky trek to see a doc­tor.

The time­sav­ing po­ten­tial of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies is so great that they may make the dif­fer­ence in en­abling women to seek paid em­ploy­ment. To­day, women un­der­take three­quar­ters of all un­paid care work, pro­duc­ing out­put of around $10 tril­lion, or 13% of global GDP – none of which is trans­lated into in­come, let alone eco­nomic power.

By their na­ture, e-com­merce and tech­nol­ogy-based businesses of­fer women more flex­i­bil­ity and au­ton­omy, help­ing them to man­age home re­spon­si­bil­i­ties along­side paid work. In In­done­sia, women-owned

businesses gen­er­ate 35% of e-com­merce rev­enue, com­pared with only 15% of the rev­enue of off­line businesses.

Like­wise, in China, 55% of new In­ter­net businesses are founded by women, and Alibaba’s Taobao e-com­merce plat­form has an equal num­ber of male and fe­male store own­ers. In fact, China is home to 114 of the world’s 147 self-made fe­male bil­lion­aires, com­pared to just 14 in the sec­ond-place coun­try, the United States.

Women’s eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment is good not just for the women who ben­e­fit. The McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute (MGI) has es­ti­mated that ad­vanc­ing gen­der equal­ity could add $12 tril­lion per year to the world econ­omy by 2025. In the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion alone, get­ting more women into full-time em­ploy­ment in higher-paid, high­er­pro­duc­tiv­ity sec­tors could add $4.5 tril­lion per year to GDP, 12% above the cur­rent tra­jec­tory.

At the com­pany level, a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence shows that more gen­der equal­ity is good for bot­tom lines. Greater di­ver­sity of lead­er­ship styles im­proves the qual­ity of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. If given the op­por­tu­nity, women could be lead­ing in­no­va­tors in the age of au­to­ma­tion and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and could help to en­sure that al­go­rithms are free of gen­der bias.

But ma­jor bar­ri­ers pre­vent women from seiz­ing these op­por­tu­ni­ties. For ex­am­ple, in In­dia, where only 29% of all In­ter­net users are fe­male, girls in ru­ral ar­eas of­ten face gen­der-based re­stric­tions on their use of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies. One vil­lage in Ut­tar Pradesh im­ple­mented a fine for any girl us­ing a mo­bile phone out­side the home.

Be­yond the so­cial at­ti­tudes that un­der­mine women’s ac­cess to dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, women and girls of­ten dis­pro­por­tion­ately lack the req­ui­site skills to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties of the dig­i­tal age. In Sin­ga­pore, for ex­am­ple, women lag be­hind men in ed­u­ca­tion in science, math, en­gi­neer­ing, and tech­nol­ogy. At Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, fe­males com­prised only 27% of the un­der­grad­u­ate com­puter-science pro­gram in 2015-2016, de­spite ac­count­ing for half of all un­der­grad­u­ates at the univer­sity.

What is at stake is not just women’s abil­ity to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, but also their ca­pac­ity to with­stand the com­ing wave of au­to­ma­tion. Ac­cord­ing to MGI re­search, in Sin­ga­pore alone, 800,000 full-timee­quiv­a­lent jobs could be dis­placed by 2030 due to au­to­ma­tion. The jobs that are most vul­ner­a­ble to au­to­ma­tion are the low-paid, lower-skill jobs that women are more likely to hold.

At the same time, though au­to­ma­tion risks dis­rupt­ing many jobs (or tasks within jobs) for both men and women, it also takes some of the drudgery out of cur­rent work, tai­lor­ing it to hu­man abil­i­ties. The re­sult could be higher wages that con­trib­ute to the cre­ation of more new jobs – 300-365 mil­lion world­wide – as spend­ing in­creases, with emerg­ing economies gain­ing the most.

Fur­ther­more, among the new jobs that will be cre­ated will be many in fields like ed­u­ca­tion and health care, where women have tra­di­tion­ally thrived. Ac­cord­ing to MGI re­search, more than 100 mil­lion jobs could be cre­ated over the next 10-15 years as health care and ed­u­ca­tion needs grow.

It is not yet clear ex­actly how au­to­ma­tion will af­fect women’s em­ploy­ment. But there is no doubt that pro­tect­ing – and even en­hanc­ing – women’s job and in­come prospects will re­quire up­grad­ing their skills, so that they can take ad­van­tage of the new and chang­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated by the on­go­ing dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion.

The suc­cess of women in e-com­merce at­tests to the power of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies to level the eco­nomic play­ing field, to the ben­e­fit of in­di­vid­ual women, their com­mu­ni­ties and so­ci­eties, and the world econ­omy. More women in work – par­tic­u­larly in the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­tries that are shap­ing our col­lec­tive fu­ture – would be good news for all.

What is at stake is not just women’s abil­ity to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, but also their ca­pac­ity to with­stand the com­ing wave of au­to­ma­tion.

Women lead­ers at con­fer­ence on in­no­va­tion and en­trepreneur­ship

A hu­manoid ro­bot

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