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Digital gender gap in MENA region: Root causes and solutions - Daily News Egypt

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Digital gender gap in MENA region: Root causes and solutions

If 600 million more women are connected to internet in 3 years, this would translate to $13-18bn rise in global GDP

The digital gender gap, or the gender gap in technology, is a term that refers to the difference between groups with access to technology and the internet, and those without, based on their gender.

Unfortunately, females have less access to technology and the internet compared to males. It is particularly in developing countries that females struggle to afford technology and internet access.

In addition, stereotypes about technology being ‘for boys’, and a fear of being discriminated against, stop girls from using digital tools.

According to international statistics, the gender technology gap also negatively impacts countries’ potential for economic growth and development. If 600 million more women are connected to the internet in three years, this would translate to a rise in global GDP of between $13bn and $18bn.

The 2021 edition of the Women Business Forum, hosted by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), focused on digital transformation and how technology can be harnessed to empower women as entrepreneurs, traders, workers, and professionals.

Roundtable discussions with high-level international experts focused on: the root causes of the digital gender divide in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; the opportunities digital technologies present for value chains, small businesses competitiveness; and women’s bargaining power.

During the opening session of the forum’s first day, held on Tuesday, Fatou Haidara, Managing Director at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s (UNIDO) Directorate of Corporate Management and Operations, said digitalisation has become a gateway for women to meaningfully engage in economic activity, including as entrepreneur.

She added that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought into stark relief the importance of digitalisation to the resilience of businesses in times of crisis. However, due to the current digital gap, including in the MENA region, women entrepreneurs are less able to take advantage of these opportunities for economic benefit.

At the same time, Haidara said that the most significant barrier limiting female entrepreneurship is the lack of social networks for female business founders. There are also few female role models, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which are compounded by the persistent challenges in access to finance.

“At UNIDO, addressing these barriers and ensuring that women entrepreneurs have the access and skills needed to seize the opportunities offered by digitalisation is becoming a matter of urgency,” she said.

This first round had a close discussion on the root causes of the digital gap and how it is affecting women business across the region. The panellists also shared the good practices, leverage points, and policy advice on how this digital gap can be bridged.

According to the global system for mobile communication in 2020, women in low and middle income countries are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone and 20% less likely to use mobile internet than men.

This is unsurprising as digital literacy among women in some MENA countries also remains very low.

Women entrepreneurs: Snowball effect

Speaking during the first round of the forum’s discussions, Chiara Criscuolo, Head of the Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterised by a rise in digital adoption and the use of telework for resilience.

Criscuolo added that women have been very much at the centre of this reach for resilience, because they have regulated the health response. She revealed that across the OECD economies, women make up almost 70% of the healthcare workforce.

In addition to this, women are shouldering much of the burden that they had at home and school, as well as in terms of childcare, and they were really impelled to take care of the household.

“So this is really where I think that this has been a challenge during COVID-19, especially for women,” Criscuolo said, “At the same time, we know that COVID-19 provided an opportunity for entry of new businesses and for women entrepreneurs, so there has been a drop in entry rates, but this has increased over time.”

She stressed that it is important to look at women entrepreneurs due to the fact that they are job creators, they introduce innovation, and there is a lot of evidence of these across OECD countries.

Criscuolo also mentioned that there is a snowball effect in place, meaning that female entrepreneurs employ more women. Due to this, the world has witnessed the increased participation of women in the labour force.

She gave the example of Indonesia, where on average women across all businesses represent about 40% of the workforce. But by looking at female owned businesses, this figure doubled to 80% of the workforce.

She added that there are challenges for women entrepreneurship; in particular, there is a significant gap in digital entrepreneurship.

Gender gap stronger in digital intensive sectors

Criscuolo said, “According to the figures that we have collected for the MENA countries, when we look at female-founded startups for the last 20 years, less than 10% of startups have at least one female founder in Saudi Arabia.”

“This raises to a bit shy over 30%, in Lebanon,” she added, “So you really see that the numbers are really in between these two are minimum and maximum, and they’re really low relative to the male participation.”

She explained that these gender differences, as well as the gender gap which is particularly strong in the digital intensive sectors, are especially strong in information technology (IT), and the software and hardware sectors.

Criscuolo said that there are several reasons for this gender gap, including the fact that women have received much less, and are less likely to receive, funding for their businesses.

She said that the second reason is a gap in STEM education and in general in skills for digital transformation. These include STEM subjects, but also managerial and finance skills. In addition to this, there remain particularly strong stereotypes, as well as the general difficulties in participation in the labour force.

Bridging the gender gap

Given her experience at her organisation, AFAEMME President María Helena de Felipe Lehtonen shared some of the best practices that can be implemented in the MENA region to bridge the gender gap among female entrepreneurs.

“The first experience is from Italy, where they have been working very hard in the digitalisation for many years,” she said, “In 2018, they developed a series of actions dedicated to creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem ready to the digital revolution for enabling the formation of the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with the specific objective of increasing the participation of women in SMEs.”

Lehtonen said that this move was aimed at encouraging women to start new digital businesses, and to promote STEM and entrepreneurial careers, among young women. They then developed a service of digital mentoring for women entrepreneurs.

In 2019, these efforts worked with 100 female students guided by 20 female entrepreneurs, who guided them towards bringing in digitalisation and STEM subjects to their work. In 2020, Italy was working on urban projects, specifically addressed to women over 40 who want to become entrepreneurs and use digital tools to expand their businesses.

Lehtonen said, “Another example is in Egypt, where I saw that there are some networks that have been working in digital transformation and intelligence, entrepreneurial ecosystem, financial technology (fintech) and the Internet of Things (IoT).”

She noted that these networks have provided insights on success factors for international female entrepreneurs, integrating knowledge into the business or in the economy, marketing skills using online social media platforms streaming, and using digital tools that are needed for businesses.

“I think these are very useful topics for promoting digitalisation for women entrepreneurs as well,” Lehtonen said, “There are initiatives aimed at encouraging women to study science, technology, mathematics.

She stressed that it is crucial to work on increasing digital competencies, adding that women must be part of bridging the gender gaps in the use of digital technologies and digital literacy.

For her part, Wafaa Bassim, a member of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), reviewed the country’s efforts with the “Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator”, which was set up last year.

Bassim said that the “Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator”, which was launched by the Ministry of International Cooperation in collaboration with the NCW, the World Economic Forum (WEF), in partnership with the private sector, is the first of its kind public-private collaboration model in Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa.

It aims to: help governments and businesses take decisive action to close economic gender gaps; design innovative plans that will encourage growth and shape the workforce landscape; advance gender parity, diversity, and inclusion; and improve the ability of families and individuals to increase their income through economic mobility.

Bassim also revealed that Egypt is now adapting a new initiative that completes this accelerator, namely “She for Digitalization”, which Bassim said aims to train women and girls in Egypt on all digital skills. 

Talking about the policies needed to bridge the gender gap, she said that it is necessary to establish an early warning system to monitor the negative effects of digitisation on gender equality. There is also a need to redesign government programmes to increase women’s capabilities digitally, and help women complete their social skills through higher education and developing digital skills.

For her part, Criscuolo talked about the follow-up actions that both the private and the public sectors should take in order to make digitalisation an opportunity more than a risk. She said that she would like to propose a policy strategy, which she calls as a FEMME policy strategy.

She stressed the need to have a multi-pronged policy strategy for women that should really focus on furnishing the necessary skills for women to succeed in the digital economy, but also to create digital startups. For this reason, women should also receive skills related to STEM subjects, rather than just financial and management skills.

Criscuolo said that it is very hard for women worldwide to deal with financiers in particular, just as it is hard for them to access the necessary financial resources. She noted that it is important to empower female entrepreneurs with better access to these financial resources.

As part of the strategy, she said that governments and the community should really minimise the barriers that women can face when they want to create a startup, in particular the digital sector. She explained that these barriers include stereotypes and ingrained socioeconomic.

Criscuolo stressed the need to overcome the stereotype where women cannot access science and technologies. She mentioned that, unfortunately, in some OECD economies, women are very skilled, but they do not participate in the labour market, especially if they are married and have children.

She added that the fourth pillar for the FEMME strategy is to maximise women labour market participation. The last pillar in the strategy, she said, is the need to have evidence in this policy action.

“One of the issues we have mentioned before is the lack of measurement, so it is important to measure to provide the right statistics that distinguish by gender, but also measure the progress of policy action, evaluate it, and then put these evaluation in practice via sort of adjusting the policy action in sort of sometimes experimenting with pilot setups very useful,” she said.

Criscuolo also highlighted that climate change is a big issue, mentioning that women, through their innovation and their attitude towards societal challenges, will be important players in the field.

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