Technology is a gateway to new public spaces, markets, and information with major potential for boosting women’s economic activity and participation. Mobile banking, smartphones, and gender-sensitive investment strategies are expanding women’s financial inclusion, spurring entrepreneurship, and strengthening women’s autonomy and decision-making in the home and in their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of climate change have reinforced the importance of closing gender gaps in access to technology in order to build back more equitably and sustainably.
Here we highlight innovative strategies and best practices for harnessing the particular promise of technology to advance gender equality. New partnerships and coalitions across government, the private sector and civil society will be needed to take this work forward at scale, and ensure that women are at the center of our rapidly digitizing world.
CLOSING DIGITAL GENDER GAPS TO BOOST ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT
Increasing access to mobile phones, cash transfers, and digital financial literacy skills can strengthen women’s decision-making abilities and enhance their bargaining power in the home.
- Women in Niger reported that mobile transfers had increased their mobility, opportunities to sell agricultural products, and flexibility to purchase household goods. Mobile cash transfers can benefit women’s physical security and reduce poverty-related stress that leads to domestic conflict, in addition to improving nutrition and financial resilience. Access to mobile phones can also connect women farmers to technologies that raise productivity in the long run, and facilitate direct market access that allows them to move from subsistence farming to robust entrepreneurship.
- The Benazir Income Support Programme, the major cash transfers program in Pakistan, uses technology-based payment mechanisms such as debit cards, mobile phones, and smart cards to reach women across the country. The cash transfer program led to improvements in the socio-economic wellbeing and empowerment of women beneficiaries, who gained a stronger sense of identity and reported feeling financially empowered for the first time.
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, CGAP, and Women’s World Banking published guidance that outlines potential gains from digital cash transfers to women during the COVID-19 crisis. Key recommendations include pursuing private sector partnerships to subsidize digital access, expanding registration and information systems to collect sex-disaggregated data, and providing capacity-building training for women in financial literacy skills.
EXPANDING NEW BUSINESS MODELS WITH ONLINE PLATFORMS
Supporting women’s entrepreneurship and empowering women with new business platforms is key to strengthening women’s autonomy and decision-making.
- The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), led by Reema Nanavaty, is a trade union in India advocating for the rights and empowerment of low-income, self-employed women. SEWA has been working for almost five decades to improve the livelihoods of women workers in the informal economy, through various initiatives using technology, technical training, microfinance, market linkages, and natural resource management. One initiative is SEWA’s Rural Commodities Distribution Network (RUDI), which partners with delivery apps to expand service in urban areas in tandem with door-to door delivery by women in rural areas. RUDI was launched in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation as a way to strengthen food supply chains while empowering a network of 4,400 saleswomen who collectively reach one million customers across 3,000 villages.
- Tajirat al-Facebook is an online group used by Sudanese women entrepreneurs to trade and sell goods. These platforms create an exclusively female virtual space for communication and enable women to work from home without breaching social norms and expectations.
Harness the innovation of civil society organizations, who are mobilizing to address injustice and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic using digital technology.
- SEWA is using digital platforms like WhatsApp to distribute information related to COVID-19 to hundreds of thousands of women. Grassroots leaders developed e-modules, videos, and voice message trainings on the health effects of the virus, in addition to live broadcasts accessible by mobile phone. SEWA also trained women to use mobile phones as an entrepreneurial platform. In the face of worsening food scarcity, women are preparing food kits, packaged snacks, and baked goods that households and hospitality businesses can order online, which has helped women and their families sustain incomes during the pandemic.
- In Nigeria, the program Education as a Vaccine developed a mobile phone app to increase access to accurate health and service information and connect survivors of violence to services. It organized a community advocacy campaign to ensure that essential gender-based violence services were made widely available.
- As COVID-19 threatens to reverse gains and erode girls’ advances in educational attainment, many countries are leveraging technology and remote learning to promote girls’ education. In Cambodia, the All Children Reading–Cambodia project adapted online tools that parents are familiar with, like Facebook and YouTube, to ensure students in rural areas are practicing age appropriate reading and writing skills. In Kenya, iMlango developed a mobile phone app to be used on parents’ mobile phones, to ensure marginalized girls could continue learning from home.
ENGAGING CROSS-SECTOR PARTNERSHIPS AND NEW COALITIONS
Partner with the private sector to support and invest in new technologies and women-led businesses and networks. The private sector, particularly venture capital, can be a powerful force in removing barriers and driving progress for women’s entrepreneurship by providing digital platforms and resources that are otherwise inaccessible to women.
- Teja Ventures, the first venture capital fund in Asia to apply a gender lens to its initiatives, invests in technology and business models that support women as economic drivers in the investment value chain— from founders to consumers, suppliers, vendors, and beneficiaries— and targets women-led businesses that aim to tap women’s leadership potential and promote their financial inclusion. The co-founder, Virginia Tan, is also the founder of She Loves Tech, the world’s largest competition for women-led or women-focused tech startups, and of Lean In China, a professional women’s platform with more than 100,000 members across China.
- Ant Financial—an affiliate of the Alibaba Group, in partnership with Goldman Sachs and the International Finance Corporation— uses internet-based financing to increase microlending to women entrepreneurs across China, many of whom operate businesses on online platforms such as TaoBao.
Multilateral agencies, governments, and external investors must work in tandem to create new financial and economic pathways to invest in micro-enterprises and women-led businesses.
- The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting SEWA in India by linking one million small entrepreneurs to newer markets via a digital platform. Young girls are gaining skills in digital models, cataloguing, and green technology, including in new areas of solar energy, irrigation, and sustainable agriculture, which boosts economic freedom and empowerment for all.
- Traditional infrastructure-oriented donors, including the World Bank, must also work with national governments to consider how their investments at every stage of the value chain impact and advance gender equity.
BUILDING A PIPELINE OF WOMEN AND GIRLS IN STEM
Building a pipeline of women and girls in technology is needed to boost women’s economic security and participation, narrow the gender pay gap, and ensure a more representative, diverse, and talented STEM workforce. Tech companies, such as Microsoft, also need to democratize hiring practices and source talent from all areas of the global economy, particularly young women in rural or hard-to-reach areas.
- AkiraChix, led by Linda Kamau, offers young women in Africa hands-on technical training in market-relevant technology, entrepreneurship and life skills, to allow them to compete economically and close the gender gap in the technology field. Among AkiraChix’s graduates, 70 percent of young women were placed in the tech industry as software developers, designers, and researchers within 60 days of graduation.
- Girls Who Code, a program that has reached 300,000 girls through 8,700 clubs around the world, found that high school girls who were encouraged by a role model were 62 percent more likely to pursue a major in computer science than girls who were not.
APPLYING NEW TECHNOLOGIES TO COLLECT DATA AND INFORM DECISION-MAKING
Closing gender data gaps is more important than ever in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Innovative methods to collect and analyze data offer promise in addressing gender inequality globally through evidence-based policies and programming.
- New technologies are being used to collect data on sensitive issues through confidential digital platforms such as mobile phone surveys. Data mining techniques revealed complex and anomalous patterns of sexual violence in El Salvador in real time and enabled early detection and informed intervention by law enforcement officials.
- In Uganda, UN Global Pulse analyzed digital data to track perceptions about contraceptive use and teenage pregnancy. This demonstrated the potential for digital data, accessed through platforms like Facebook, to inform development programming and accelerate progress toward the SDGs.
- Global Health 50/50, an international organization working to advance gender equality in public health, has compiled an online dataset tracking the different health outcomes of COVID-19 for men and women. Such datasets are critical to increasing understanding and informing policy responses to the gendered impacts of pandemics.
- Data is also a tool to increase the collective strength and bargaining power of women. Digital platforms are the new public space for women, and empowering women with new technologies that provide direct access to data allows them to build their own economic opportunities.
CONFRONTING THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Technology can help ensure women benefit from and participate in new green economies, and connect rural and vulnerable populations with water and energy. Advancing women’s leadership in climate adaptation and resilience is key to addressing the climate crisis and building back more equitably and sustainably. Ensuring women are at the center of innovations in renewable energy, as well as regenerative agriculture and infrastructure sectors, will contribute to greater wellbeing for all.
- The Rockefeller Foundation’s End Energy Poverty initiative addresses the nexus between poverty, a lack of access to energy, and climate change by accelerating access to and consumption of renewable electricity in underserved, low-income communities worldwide. It harnesses the impact of climate-smart energy systems and new technologies and puts women at the center of innovation to empower communities to become more equitable and resilient to future crises. With a billion-dollar commitment designed to ensure 50 percent of productive power users and people in the DRE value chain will be women, the initiative capitalizes on driving gender equity through energy access.
- In Sierra Leone, the Freetown City Council works to create innovative space for women and young people to drive new ideas to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of climate change. This includes partnering with Pitch Night, a space for budding entrepreneurs to pitch their innovative business ideas, and launching the Cleanest Zone Competition, which judges zones for their progress in cleanliness, beautification, sustainability, and innovative solutions.