Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Could this be the secret to closing the workplace gender gap?

Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Jessica Long
Managing Director and Chief Strategy Officer, Closed Loop Partners
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This piece is part of an in-depth series on Women at Work. For regular updates on gender issues ‘like’ our Facebook Page and sign up to The Gender Agendaweekly email digest.

We know that having gender diversity in the workplace is critical for creating a more equitable world. We also know that it makes good business sense. According to recent research, gender-diverse companies are 45% more likely to grow market share, achieve 53% higher returns on equity, and are 70% more likely to successfully capture new markets. That’s good business.

So how do we increase gender diversity in the workplace? We’ve heard a lot about increasing education levels, but while women account for 60% of university graduates in the US and more than 40% of enrollments in India and China, the gap in workforce outcomes (pay, leadership positions, for example) continues to be staggering. Mentorship, sponsorship and succession planning are very important to help close this gap. But how can we scale and speed up this process? According to Accenture’s new research, at our current pace, we won’t achieve workplace gender equality until 2065 in developed nations, and 2100 in developing nations.

The question we at Accenture set out to answer with this research was: can digital technology close the equality gap for women and solve the talent shortage? Based on our research on digital fluency – the extent to which people embrace and use digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective – the answer is a resounding yes. Our findings show that increasing digital fluency in women can shorten the time it will take to reach gender equality in the workplace by decades – in both developed and developing countries.

To tackle this question, Accenture developed a digital fluency model, drawing on survey responses from nearly 5,000 women and men in 31 countries, combined with data from sources like the World Bank and the OECD. Our findings, published in Getting to Equal: How Digital is Helping Close the Gender Gap at Work, show how – by doubling the pace at which women become digitally fluent – we could reach gender equality in the workplace by 2040 in developed countries and by 2060 in developing countries.

Let’s take a deeper look at how. We found that digital fluency has a significant impact on every stage of a person’s career – a powerful one in education and in gaining employment, and an increasingly important one as women move into leadership.

Increased digital fluency results in better-educated women

To gauge women’s education levels, we used data from the World Bank regarding the enrollment of women in secondary and higher education. We also analysed how people use digital to support their education (e.g. taking virtual course, accessing materials online). It is clear from our data that women in many countries are already better educated than men, and we found that women’s digital fluency is helping to drive these outcomes.

In fact, our analysis shows that when men and women have the same level of digital fluency, women achieve a higher rate of education. Digital fluency has had an even more positive impact on the education of women in developing countries: more than two-thirds (68%) of women in developing countries, versus less than half (44%) of women in developed countries, say that the internet was important to their education. A first step for many countries – for example in India and Indonesia, where levels of digital fluency are low – will be to greatly increase availability and access to the internet and digitally-enabled educational tools.

Women’s find it easier to get jobs as digital fluency increases

Digital fluency is helping today’s workers better manage their time and become more productive. And this is having an even greater impact on women in the workforce. Digital fluency enables greater work flexibility – an amenity that workers value and many companies are now providing. While men and women alike are liberated by the balance that work flexibility affords, women appear to derive greater value from it. Almost half of the working women said they use digital to work from home and to access job opportunities; 41% said digital helped them balance their personal and professional lives, and access job opportunities.

Most encouragingly, our research shows that as women increase their digital fluency, their ability to find and participate in the workforce increases at an accelerating pace. Digital fluency is removing many of the barriers that non-working women said kept them from working. In our survey, almost 60% of women who are not currently employed said that working from home or having more-flexible hours would help them find work.

Lots of progress, but more work to be done

While digital can clearly help accelerate workplace gender equality, there’s still a lot more we need to do when it comes to advancing opportunities for women. Although digital fluency clearly helps women train for and gain employment, the relationship between digital fluency and women’s advancement is not as significant. Similarly, we found that, while digital fluency is having a positive impact on pay for both men and women, the gap in pay between genders is still not closing. Men are by far the dominant earners by household across all three generations – millennials, generation X and baby boomers.

Although digital fluency will help us speed progress, it is not the only solution – cultural factors, unconscious bias and unsupportive environments all need to be addressed in a holistic journey to equality. But optimism is high and the world looks bright for our next generation: in our survey, nearly three-quarters of men and women agree that “the digital world will empower our daughters”.

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