o, say Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, Co-Chairs of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. In the report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, published in June 2019, Gates and Ma seek to share with the world the opportunities and challenges presented by digital technology and hope to shape a more inclusive and sustainable future. The report suggests four priority action areas and one recommendation of facilitated Global Digital Cooperation.
The first priority action area, An Inclusive Digital Economy and Society, focuses on gender equality, the oldest problem in the book. Recommendation 1C emphasizes the need to “strengthen research and promote action on barriers women and marginalized groups face to digital inclusion and digital equality.” The report does make specific mention of women and other traditionally marginalized groups and the need to address barriers in order to create a more inclusive digital society throughout.
However, inequality for women and girls, not just in the digital economy but on a global epidemic level, is pervasive and unchanged. Women are more likely to live in extreme poverty, more likely to report food insecurity, and are more likely to live under the threat of violence from an intimate partner. The discrimination lived by women and girls globally literally ends lives. In protest, women are standing up and demanding their equal rights, and yet, gender inequality is deeply entrenched in our global culture, perpetuating the barriers that exist to full inclusion, digital or otherwise.
For action to be taken on reducing the barriers women face in digital inclusion, a deeper analysis is needed. The Gates Foundation offers a model for such analysis. The Foundation believes that investing in the empowerment of women and girls can lead to change and equality. In the digital age, digital tools and technologies might be the missing ingredient to solving the gender equality problem. The Gates model offers three components of empowerment that lead to change: agency, institutional structures, and resources.
Resources, or the lack thereof, is the biggest barrier facing women in digital inclusion and equality. Half of the world is still off-line. Billions of people around the globe do not have access to electricity on a regular basis let alone access to the internet or mobile technology. This gap in resources around the world affects women more. Women, globally, earn less and are less likely to be able to afford technology like mobile phones and computers. And there isn’t a private sector interest in solving this issue.
“The market itself cannot address the problem of women’s exclusion from the digital economy. We need action from governments to incentivize companies to produce more affordable technologies. But even more critically we need national and international leadership on tackling the structural inequalities that prevent women from accessing mobiles or computers due to cost and social norms, and working in the tech companies that are shaping the evolution of digital societies and industries,” says Becky Faith, Research Fellow and Co-Leader of the Digital and Technology at the Institute of Development Studies. The private sector, civil society, national governments, multilateral organizations and the general public will be responsible for changing the norms around access to technology.
The very first step in creating an inclusive digital economy and society must be access to resources. The private and public sectors must invest in the structures that will bring affordable and accessible internet access, mobile phone networks, and digital devices to the billions of women who currently do not participate.
Another critical step to increasing women’s participation in the digital economy and society is changing cultural gender norms. Discriminatory gender norms are at the heart of gender inequality across all segments of society and even influence the way data is collected. “With good data, better decisions can be made,” says Nina Rabinovitch Blecker of Data2X, an organization working to improve the quality, availability and use of gender data in order to make a difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide. She continues, “Data systems have been built with inherent biases, not because of ill intent, but because of who helped build the systems and what types of topics and activities were considered valuable to collect data on. Now, systems have evolved, and we have the opportunity to rectify these issues.”
The Inclusive Data Charter is another initiative that is helping to break down the discriminatory norms that affect data collection. The Inclusive Data Charter was developed by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) and partners to mobilize political commitments and meaningful actions to deepen data disaggregation. “An inclusive digital society is a society that can actually support a digital economy. Having disaggregated data makes that possible,” says Amber Kiwan of GPSDD.
Biased gender norms affect the way that women are allowed or not allowed to interact with the world. The implications of these biases also exist in the way that data is collected. To whom survey questions are being asked, what kind of questions are asked or not asked are just a few of the ways in which data can also be affected. Data helps us all make better decisions, but first, biased norms against women and girls must stop.
Ultimately, change in resources and institutional structures alone will not create an inclusive digital economy or society. Women must have the power to freely choose to participate in the digital space. Agency is the linchpin of the Gates empowerment model and is the linchpin here when creating an inclusive digital economy and society.
In the development sector, there are countless programs intended to improve people’s lives. Increase household incomes, reduce malnutrition rates, increase literacy and numeracy rates. More and more, digital technology is being used to increase the efficacy of these development programs or to deliver government services. As with every development program, however, there can be unintended negative outcomes. With digital, unintended consequences can be harder to spot, particularly for women and girls, who are often underrepresented in both the data and the systems that govern them. “Our responsibility is to do the right thing and monitor what happens as a result of our actions,” says Laura Walker McDonald, Senior Director for Insights and Impact at the Digital Impact Alliance. “Digital development has more potential to disproportionally, but unintentionally, harm women and girls because we’re not tracking the impacts of our work accurately.”
When women are left out of the ecosystems that are created with the intention of creating a more equal world for us all, their agency is left behind as well. It is imperative that as digital technology is increasingly being used in the development sector, that women and girls are consulted and able to inform the design of these programs. Digital development spaces must ensure that their programs are accurately accounting for the discriminatory gender norms that govern our society, and therefore, a digital economy and society as well.
Creating an inclusive digital economy and society will take work. The Age of Digital Interdependence report fully acknowledges that and details a list of action items needed to be taken moving forward. But the barriers faced by women are much deeper and more complex than the report can give space to address. In using The Gates Foundation empowerment model to think through the key elements required for an inclusive digital economy and society for women, it’s evident that there are serious barriers that face women in participating fully in the digital space. Working through the issues regarding resources, institutional structures, and agency will help promote economic opportunity and environmental stability for us all.