As the world transitions to an increasingly digital economy, many low- and middle-income countries face an obstacle: most emerging economies lack qualified people to fill critical information and communication technology (ICT) jobs, a shortage that is exacerbated by the low representation of women in these industries. The gap between the demand for ICT workers and the supply of job seekers with the necessary technical skills threatens the ability of those countries to participate in a powerful driver of growth in the twenty-first century—the digital economy. As the CFR Discussion Paper "Women in Tech as a Driver for Growth in Emerging Economies" argues, increasing the participation of women in the ICT labor force would help bridge this gap, but women are not yet able to take full advantage of this growing sector. While a degree in computer science or engineering is necessary for most professional-level careers in ICT, the share of women graduates in these fields is slipping in many parts of the world.
Although researchers and policymakers have focused on closing the gender divide in ICT jobs in the United States and Europe, far less attention has been focused on emerging economies, which increasingly rely on local labor forces to drive growth. Globally, ICT sector jobs are transitioning from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries to non-OECD countries because of the rapid growth of ICT markets in emerging economies. According to a 2012 report by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), "China is by far the largest producer and exporter of ICT goods today, while India is the largest exporter of computer and information services." The demand for ICT skills has also grown outside of the ICT sector, as digital technologies are applied across other sectors to improve productivity.
Additionally, development policy faces an existential crisis. Dramatic advances in automation and artificial intelligence are rapidly replacing low-skilled and routine jobs and closing the traditional path of development through industrialization. Factories, agriculture, and call centers—traditional stepping stones to the middle class for low-wage workers—increasingly require fewer human hands. The global trend toward offshoring is even showing early signs of reversal because increased automation has made the cost of labor less significant. In this upheaval, the ITU notes, "more women than men have been displaced due to increased automation and computerization of workplaces."
Expanding women's access to ICT jobs would not only advance economic opportunities for women, their families, and their communities, but it would also help address the shortage of skilled workers for these jobs and grow the digital economy. As women become increasingly active users of technology, their participation in designing and developing tech products and services will help to enhance technology's relevance for women as consumers, further boosting innovation and economic growth. Working together, the public and private sector should address the multiple barriers women and girls face, particularly in low- and middle-income countries whose economies stand to gain the most from greater participation of women in vital ICT jobs.