We have all heard about a gap when it comes to participation of women in the tech industry. Facebook, Google, and Apple have 17%, 19% and 23% women in their technology staffs, respectively. Multiple surveys, such as the “The Elephant in the Valley,” have documented systematic discrimination against women. And there’s a continuous barrage of news stories regarding the challenges that women face across a raft of iconic Silicon Valley firms. No more than a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs are held by women, consistent with the data that around 26% of the STEM workforce in developed countries is female. In developing countries, those differences are even greater.
But the gender gap problem doesn’t stop there. There’s also a shortage of women using some of the industry’s products. The International Telecommunications Union reports that the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than the proportion of men; this gender gap widens to 32.9% in the least developed countries. And even when a woman gets on a phone or is online, she might face additional hostility. A World Wide Web Foundation report says “women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive, often sexualized hate speech, direct threats of violence, harassment, and revenge porn involving use of personal/private information for defamation.”
What this speaks to is an opportunity for the tech industry — both to address internal diversity issues and to address how companies think about the products they create around the world.
Consider the benefits of narrowing the gender gap. When women are locked out of digital products, businesses lose customers and product development gets stymied. For example, the Connected Women report from the GSMA shows that women are less likely to be financially independent when the digital gender gap is wide.
Closing this gap would disproportionately help women and the global economy; a recent Accenture study suggests that women derive greater value from “digital fluency” in the workplace than men do. And a study of Kenya’s popular M-PESA mobile money service suggests that digital financial services can increase the participation of women in the workforce and create opportunities for women in the formal market economy. Plus, consider the new generation of unlikely entrepreneurs – on Facebook-owned Instagram – in socially conservative Saudi Arabia: a growing number of women are turning to the app to start businesses that can bypass both bureaucracies and social restrictions. Thousands of women have established Instagram businesses selling handicrafts, food, clothing and accessories. Moreover, women tend to have a disproportionate influence on decisions around family, community, and children. They tend to invest more of their earnings in their families than men do – almost 10 times more. So closing the digital gender gap would likely have far-reaching benefits.
Of course, this story is bigger then any one business goal. To quote the World Economic Forum’s founder, Dr. Klaus Schwab, “Achieving gender equality is obviously necessary for economic reasons. Only those economies (that) have full access to all their talent will remain competitive and will prosper. But even more important, gender equality is a matter of justice. As a humanity, we also have the obligation to ensure a balanced set of values.”
Understanding the opportunity in digital inclusion
Apart from the many benefits of the uptake of digital technology, can the industry’s advances actually help address this gender disparity? Can it help close the gender gap and set the many multiplier effects in motion?
As part of our global study of the patterns of digital evolution, a collaboration between The Fletcher School and Mastercard, we set out to ask a related question: what is the impact of an increase in digital uptake across countries on gender inclusion?
We created two measures. One is a measure of gender inclusion, an index that combines several indicators of female participation, including female literacy rates, the proportion of women with accounts at a financial institution, female labor force participation rates, and the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament. The second measure is one of digital uptake, an index comprising adoption of the internet, mobile or landline connections, digital consumption, and use of digital technology for commercial purposes.
Our analyses of the relationship between these measures point to an interesting result. We find that every percentage in growth of digital uptake over the period 2008-2011 leads to a positive growth rate of gender digital inclusion over the period 2011-15 by about 2.3%.
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When the 60 countries analyzed are limited to only those in the developing world, every percentage in growth of digital uptake over the period 2008-2011 leads to a positive growth rate of gender digital inclusion over the period 2011-15 by about 2%.
We see this as further evidence that digital uptake contributes to wider benefits across the economy and in narrowing the gender gap. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, when we remove the obstacles that constrain women from reaching parity with men, $28 trillion of new value is added to global GDP in 10 years. Surely, this should make us feel more encouraged about the positive impact of digital technology in helping reduce a key form of social, political and economic imbalance.
If the makers of digital technologies can better focus on creating products and virtual environments where women feel more included, more women will use the industry’s products, which, in turn, create these multiplier effects across society. It will also help drive the need to hire more women to participate in building and selling those products. It is useful to remember that all six programmers of Eniac, the world’s first digital computer, were women; it is time the industry caught up with its own history.
We will now need to watch and see if the tech industry can find better ways to both close the gender gap in its own ranks as well as the gender gap in its customers.
The author is the Senior Advisor for Digital Inclusion to the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. He would like to thank Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, Cassandra Pagan, and Rasima Swarup for their insights, research and analyses.