Joint Op-Ed: Why it is crucial to bridge the digital gender divide

Elena Panova, UN Resident Coordinator in Egypt
10 Min Read

The converging global crises of climate change, increasing costs of living, food insecurity and the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to reverse the gains achieved under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sima Bahous, UN Women Executive Director, recently stated We are at a “tipping point for women’s rights and gender equality as we approach the half-way mark to 2030.” 

Global research shows that at the current rates we need 300 years to achieve gender equality. “When SDG5 (Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment) is off track, all SDGs are off track. It is critical that we rally now to invest in women and girls to reclaim and accelerate progress. The longer we take to reverse this trend, the more it will cost us all” said Executive Director Bahous.That’s why the UN chose the theme for commemorating the International Women’s Day for 2023 to be “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.”

Joint Op-Ed: Why it is crucial to bridge the digital gender divide

A persistent gender gap in digital access keeps women from unlocking technology’s full potential. Right now, the UN’s 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women is underway with Member States reviewing a way forward around “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. 

The gaps are considerable. Globally, 259 million more men than women use the internet. The exclusion of women and girls in the digital world could potentially result in a loss of US $ 1.5 trillion by 2025 in low and middle-income countries. 

From the earliest days of computing to the present age of virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI), women have made untold contributions to the digital world. Their accomplishments have been made against all odds, in a challenging male-dominated field. Today, only one in three of positions in the technology sector are occupied by women globally and they make up only 22% of AI workers. 44% of AI systems reviewed demonstrate a gender bias. 21% of women in the sector face gender pay gap. 

Although Egypt is doing well in comparison to many countries in Africa and the Middle East, with 50% of STEM graduates being women (CAMPAS 2018-2019), this percentage is not equally reflected in STEM workforce given women’s low employment rate in both the private and public sectors. The disconnect between educational attainment and active employment in the STEM sectors is due in part to the assumptions made by society and potential employers on the effectiveness of women in the STEM sectors. Also, the expected care-giving roles of women in the home and mobility issues that many young women face in situations where STEM-related work is outside of their community, which negatively impact women’s work in STEM. 

In Egypt, the United Nations priorities gender equality and digital empowerment in its core planning and programmatic work at the country level. This is clearly illustrated in the new five-year cooperation framework (2023-27) between the Government of Egypt and the United Nations.  It places innovation and digitalization as one of the key enablers for the acceleration of progress towards sustainable development. 

Currently, the UN in Egypt works closely with the government, private sector, academia and civil society to enhance women and girls’ digital inclusion and promote safe online space for young men and women. UN plays a significant role in supporting the development of Egypt’s Education Strategy 2.0 and the digital transformation strategy “Digital Egypt 2030”. One of the main pillars of these strategies is to enhance the digital skills of Egyptians, empower young generations digitally and equip them with the necessary skills to identify threats with the aim of supporting a safe environment for internet users especially children. It also spotlights the importance of protecting the rights of women, girls and children in digital spaces and addresses online and ICT-facilitated gender-based violence, and the importance of online protection and internet safety for all. 

The UN in Egypt leads by example several national initiatives to ensure digital inclusion for all. ITU, UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNHCR, IOM, WFP, ILO, UNIDO, UN Women and other UN agencies in Egypt embrace digital inclusion to achieve social, political, and economic empowerment and narrow digital divides, particularly to vulnerable populations including women and girls. Among these initiatives are: UNICEF’s programmes on Social and Behavioral Change Communication (SBCC), which is a digital literacy program for girls’ empowerment and establishment of emergency response system RapidPro in support to the wellbeing of children, families and communities. WFP advances digital education to end hunger by promoting the use of digital tools and teachers training as well as supporting economic inclusion of youth and women through entrepreneurial training, vocations skills development, and microloans. UNFPA leads initiatives on production of digital creative content targeting young men and women on family planning, youth empowerment and combating GBV in Egypt. Connectivity for migrants and refugees is also prioritized by IOM and UNHCR to ensure that migrants, refugees, and host communities have access to affordable internet connectivity, and leverage these technologies for protection, communications, education and community empowerment. 

Recently, and in support of the presidential initiative Haya Karima/Decent Life and the National Project for the Development of Egyptian Families, UN Women, supported by the European Union and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, partners with the Central Bank of Egypt and the National Council for Women under the “National Financial Inclusion Programme: Digital Village Savings and Loans Associations-Ta7wisha”. This national programme has developed digital technology which will allow for the establishment of digital village savings and loans groups for rural women within formal banking processes; increasing access to Meeza national e-payment cards, improving women’s integration into profitable value chains and markets; and boosting women’s business and leadership skills as well as digital and financial literacy. 

Digital technology is opening new doors for the global empowerment of women and girls. From gender-responsive digital learning to tech-facilitated sexual and reproductive healthcare, the digital age represents an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate all forms of disparity and inequality. Nevertheless, a paradigm shift is needed to harness the potential of technology and innovation to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The tech world needs collaborative solutions to help break barriers to digital access and improve online safety for girls and young women. Women are rarely viewed as technology creators and decision-makers which limits the development of gender sensitive products. It is crucial to end online gender-based violence through joint efforts including increased capacities and new safeguards to ensure that the digital space offers a safe medium for women and girls to learn, work and excel. Dismantling stereotypes as well as educating and empowering women and girls to develop and deploy technology is key to ensure that the digital transformation is gender sensitive and responsive. In so doing, it is essential that there are targeted measures to ensure that rural women, women living with disabilities and older women equally benefit. 

Technology provides remarkable developing opportunities for women and girls but without addressing the threats that it imposes on them; the digital gender gap will only be intensified. Innovation and technology should be at the center of the collaborative solutions for achieving gender equality to offer an inclusive and safe digital space for everyone, including women and girls. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, highlighted in his remarks on the International Women’s Day 2023, “the good news is that women are leading the charge to make technology safer, more accessible, more inclusive, and better regulated. And across the Global South and North, more and more girls are rejecting archaic stereotypes and studying to become the scientific pioneers of tomorrow. The United Nations is proud to stand with women and girls everywhere in breaking down the barriers that hold all of us back. Together, let’s push for big, structural, transformative change and deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together, let’s realize a more inclusive, just, and prosperous world for women and girls, men and boys, everywhere.” 

By Elena Panova, UN Resident Coordinator in Egypt, and Christine Arab, UN Women Country Representative

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