Digital Inclusion: Creating Opportunities for Women
The United Nations has chosen the fitting theme “Digital Empowerment: Unlocking Opportunities for Women” for International Women’s Day 2023. Within this scope, digital innovation can offer a pathway for women’s involvement in the digital economy, providing fresh business prospects, productivity gains, and enhanced access to markets and global value chains.
According to the International Finance Corporation, women in Africa and Southeast Asia alone could contribute over $300 billion to e-commerce markets between 2025 and 2030.
E-commerce provides three primary advantages to women entrepreneurs. Firstly, it lowers entry barriers as compared to brick-and-mortar businesses, meaning women entrepreneurs can launch businesses with lower startup costs and without the need for a physical storefront, which can be a significant benefit. For instance, Ana Paula Gonzalez, a Mexican entrepreneur, founded Closca, a brand of sustainable helmets for cyclists, with startup costs of $42,000, avoiding the typical challenges of starting a traditional business.
Secondly, e-commerce enables women entrepreneurs to expand their customer base globally. Women entrepreneurs can leverage this worldwide reach to grow their businesses beyond local markets. Hanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese entrepreneur, founded her online fashion store, Chicilon, in 2017, and has since expanded her customer base beyond Vietnam to include buyers from around the world.
And thirdly, it provides flexibility in terms of work hours and location. Digital technologies can greatly benefit women entrepreneurs with caregiving responsibilities or mobility constraints.
Despite these advantages, women remain underrepresented in the digital economy compared to men. This gender gap leads to missed economic opportunities and exacerbates existing gender inequalities.
To bridge the gender divide in e-commerce and the digital economy, we need to understand the specific needs and limitations that women face as entrepreneurs, as well as the facilitating factors that can further support the growth of women-led digital businesses
Addressing the Digital Divide for Women
The digital economy has revolutionized the way people conduct business and connect globally. However, access to the internet remains a challenge, especially for women in developing countries, where they face significant disparities.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), globally, 57% of women use the internet compared with 62% of men. Women and girls make up the majority of the 2.7 billion people currently unconnected, and in the least developed countries, only 19% of women use the internet, compared to 31% of men.
In addition to access, the digital gender divide is further widened by limited opportunities for women to develop more advanced technological and digital skills. UNESCO reports that only 35% of higher education STEM students globally are women.
While advanced skills are crucial, basic digital literacy is a significant challenge for many women entrepreneurs in developing countries and the LDCs. This includes comprehension of emerging technologies and their applications, as well as knowledge of digital privacy and security.
Beyond the digital world, women entrepreneurs continue to face analog challenges, including limited access to resources, difficulties in obtaining credit, cultural inhibitions, and gender stereotypes. These issues must also be addressed to create a level playing field for all entrepreneurs
Empowering Women in Digital Leadership
In order to ensure that women’s voices are heard in shaping the digital landscape, it is imperative to increase their representation in leadership positions. Without more women in leadership roles, men will continue to dominate decision-making in areas such as communication, education, healthcare, and business.
There are a number of initiatives that seek to address this issue. For example, the Women in Digital Leadership initiative is working to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the tech industry by providing mentorship, training, and networking opportunities. So far, the initiative has helped to mentor over 500 women in the technology sector.
Another initiative, the Digital Economy for Women project, is focused on building the capacity of women entrepreneurs in developing countries to leverage digital technologies for economic growth. The project provides training, networking opportunities, and access to financing for women-led businesses in the digital economy.
In addition, there are efforts underway to raise awareness of the contributions of women in the digital economy. The Women in Digital Awards, for example, recognize the achievements of women who have made significant contributions to the tech industry. By celebrating the successes of women in digital leadership, we can inspire future generations of women to pursue careers in technology and digital entrepreneurship.
Ultimately, these initiatives are working to break down the barriers that prevent women from achieving their full potential in the digital economy. By empowering women in digital leadership, we can create a more inclusive and equitable digital landscape for all.
A Vision for Inclusion
Achieving gender parity in the digital economy requires comprehensive efforts to bridge the digital divide. Governments should prioritize enhancing digital connectivity and recognize access to affordable internet as a fundamental right, not a luxury.
For many women entrepreneurs in developing nations, accessing the digital space is challenging due to the high cost of internet. Governments need to collaborate with the private sector to expand broadband coverage in underserved areas and implement policies that promote competition in the telecommunications sector.
Facilitating women entrepreneurs’ participation in the digital economy demands a multi-stakeholder approach, entailing cooperation among governments, businesses, and civil society. This approach should strive to provide women with digital resources, education, skills, and financial support.
Unlocking the full potential of women entrepreneurs in the digital economy is pivotal to realize sustainable development opportunities. By investing in women’s digital participation, we can foster a more inclusive and fair global economy that benefits all.