Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This piece is authored by Henriette Kolb, Manager, Gender Secretariat, International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Disruptive technologies and new business models are rapidly transforming society, redefining the way people work, live, travel, and interact with each other. They are also profoundly transforming how businesses operate. Online platforms that offer ride-sharing, e-commerce, or digital payments, for example, are creating new employment opportunities for people.
Yet these new technologies and economic models have a major challenge to address—the need to close gaps between women and men. Women do not benefit equally from the goods, services, and capital available through online markets and are less likely to participate in digital platforms, impeding their long-term inclusive growth.
One of the key factors that limits women’s access to these opportunities has to do with how these technologies are designed. The tech industry is dominated by men, so products and services are often designed with their needs in mind—rather than those of women. This has a ripple effect, locking women out of better economic opportunities and limiting their efforts for greater social and financial independence.
We know, for example, that women and girls are about 50 percent less likely to have access to the Internet than men in the same age group with similar levels of education and household income, according to the World Wide Web Foundation. Women also have a much more harder time getting access to start-up capital or jobs as drivers on ride-sharing platforms. The benefits of broadening access to the Internet are clear—research suggests that up to $18 billion a year could be added to the GDP of 144 developing countries if 150 million women were given Internet access.
That is why IFC launched a new initiative called Digital 2Equal with 17 technology companies operating across the online marketplace, from Silicon Valley leaders like Google and Facebook to emerging market players like Jumia and Giraffe (for the full list of companies, please see this IFC press release). Under the initiative, the firms will expand women’s access to jobs, assets, and business opportunities across their online platforms. These commitments will include closing gender gaps in their workforce to goals aimed at boosting opportunities for female consumers or providers of services and products on their online marketplaces.
The Digital2Equal initiative builds on IFC’s recent research, Driving Toward Equality: Women, Ride-Hailing, and the Sharing Economy, which highlighted how ride-hailing apps have the potential to increase women’s mobility and ease their entry into the transportation industry, where men outnumber women.
IFC’s work with the technology companies is part of its effort to create markets for all. We work with the private sector to close gaps between men and women as employees, entrepreneurs, customers, and leaders. An increasing number now recognize that to remain competitive, they need to better address the needs of women across their business operations, including on digital platforms.
At the end of the 18-month Digital2Equal initiative, we will produce a report that will demonstrate the impact of various commitments by the technology firms to close gender gaps in online platforms.
Meanwhile, other companies in the technology sector can take immediate steps to boost gender diversity among their ranks. If they collect and evaluate sex-disaggregated data of their workforce, for example, they will know precisely where to plug the gaps. When designing products, if tech firms poll women about their needs and preferences, they will be better able to tap into the women’s market. The result: companies can reap business benefits and women can achieve greater social and financial independence.