How COVID-19 has widened the digital divide for women: A perspective from South Asia

By Aarthi Raghavan | April 22, 2021, 10.00AM

Photo by Christina on unsplash

Technology is increasingly perceived as a source of division, rather than as the great equalizer.[1] This is particularly relevant to the goal of achieving gender equality in the sector, a key priority for many leading technology companies today. According to UNESCO, globally, women and girls are 25% less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic purposes, 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers, and 13 times less likely to file for an ICT patent.[2]

This situation is especially grim in South Asia, where 51% of women are unable to access mobile internet. Women in the region are inhibited by a combination of barriers including financial resources, human capital, and other social, personal and cultural factors.[3] However, the inability to benefit from technology is not because of a lack of talent, since South Asian women are known for their contributions in the field globally.[4]

Based on how it is used, many believe that technology can be an equalizer – by bringing women closer to the true potential of digital access. A strong example is how Graam Vaani, a social technology company, is changing social norms in India by taking the message of women empowerment to millions of conservative Indian families. If effectively used, technology can help drive personalized learning, entrepreneurship and empower women at the grassroot level. In order to achieve this, it is important that women have adequate access to digital skills, relevant local content, and services on digital platforms.[5]

Despite years of efforts to empower women in the region, the COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed women back in terms of digital access. The pandemic has visibly choked the education system across countries, especially in terms of girls’ education. Experts observe that women are disproportionately exposed to the risks posed by the pandemic, with respect to unpaid household work, inability to continue learning at a distance and domestic violence. As the pandemic continues to come back in waves, millions of women may be discouraged from returning back to education and jobs.[6]

Challenges remain even for women who have entered the tech workforce. For instance, in India, women feel that the pandemic has slowed their career progression. For many of them, work-life balance has been especially hard as they continue to take care of a majority of household tasks. They are especially worried about how the transition to hybrid working models may decrease their opportunities to be considered for stretch assignments and eventually promotions.[7] Companies need to be careful while designing policies and programs to support women in tech and try to recognize their contributions and efforts. It should be a priority for the top management to create an ecosystem where women are able to benefit as much as men in achieving professional goals. According to Evgeniya Naumova, Vice President of the Global Sales Network at Kaspersky, the creation of a flexible and balanced environment for women can trigger a change in social dynamics leading to gender equality.[8]

Women today comprise only a third of the workforce in the tech sector and there remains a lot more to be achieved. In South Asia, women working in tech roles are hopeful despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. Many feel that with resilience and upskilling, women can push forward to leadership positions and earn their seat at the table. The pandemic, they believe, has created an ideal opportunity for them to step forward in their professional roles and prove themselves as equals.[9]

 

[1] https://www.crn.com/news/data-center/michael-dell-tech-should-be-an-equalizer-not-a-source-of-division-

[2] https://en.unesco.org/artificial-intelligence/gender

[3] https://blogs.worldbank.org/digital-development/digital-age-being-gender-blind-not-option

[4] https://www.fairobserver.com/region/north_america/south-asian-women-science-technology-news-stem-innovation-43893/

[5] https://blogs.worldbank.org/digital-development/digital-age-being-gender-blind-not-option

[6] https://en.unesco.org/news/covid-19-webinar-3-addressing-gender-dimensions-covid-related-school-closures

[7] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/variety/76-of-indian-women-in-tech-believe-covid-19-hindered-their-career-progression-report/article33666748.ece

[8] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/variety/76-of-indian-women-in-tech-believe-covid-19-hindered-their-career-progression-report/article33666748.ece

[9] https://www.cxotoday.com/news-analysis/rethinking-women-in-tech-in-the-next-normal/

 

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