The global business elite will descend on the upmarket Swiss resort of Davos this week for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, which this year focuses on the transforming power of technology – or the fourth industrial revolution.
Long regarded as a leading platform on key international issues, Davos has in some quarters become a byword for a champagne-soaked chums club of the global financial elite, personified by the “Davos man”. Last year’s delegate list was 83% male, despite the introduction of an unambitious quota for the WEF’s strategic partners to bring one woman in every group of five senior executives. And this year the female quotient has only increased by 1%.
Women to lose out in technology revolution as robotics threatens jobs, warns WEF
So while transforming the lives of future generations through technology is a worthy topic for debate, we might well ask what a gathering that is so grossly gender-unbalanced is likely to do to close the worrying digital divide between the sexes globally.
Too many women are being excluded from the technological revolution. The UN estimates that some 200 million more men have access to the internet than women and this chasm is especially wide in developing countries. It’s vital that this industrial revolution doesn’t entrench gender divides.
The digital exclusion of women is primarily a product of social inequalities. In many global south countries, women occupy traditional roles in the home or in the primary production sector, such as farming. According to the UN’s report, The World’s Women 2015, women are more likely than men to be unemployed or to work in the home or smallholding, which usually implies that they have little or no monetary income. In Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, between 30 and 55% of employed women are contributing family workers, about 20% higher than men in the same regions. With many women beginning these roles in their childhood years, their access to digital technology is limited early on and often never recovers.
This process of digital exclusion creates barriers to prosperity. It can restrict women’s ability to gain employment and use digital health and education services. In low-income countries, the entry point for the internet is often through a mobile phone, but ownership patterns can disadvantage women here too. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a 13% gender gap in mobile phone ownershipoverall and in Niger, that gap is as wide as 45%.
Digital divide restricts growth
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that digital access can help boost women’s personal development and wider prosperity. The Women and the Web report by Intel found that enabling greater internet access in the developing world would contribute an estimated $13bn-$18bn (£9bn-12.6bn) to annual GDP across 144 countries, while 70% of the women they surveyed said they considered the internet “liberating”.
Extra income derived from digital access for women is often invested back into families and communities: Arancha Gonzalez, head of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the UN, has estimated that women reinvest as much as 90% of their income into education, nutrition, household expenditure and caring for children and elderly relatives.
Despite its pivotal role in advancing digital access, business in general has been slow to help break down the digital divide. But there are signs this is changing: a Google initiative called Helping Women Get Online is working to improve female digital literacy in India. The project provides how-to guides and videos to get women started on the internet, with a goal of getting 50 million more online.
Meanwhile, Andela, a web and software development firm, has made skilling up women in Africa a key part of its business model. It runs a bootcamp scheme that identifies promising young female coders and recruits them to its network of Africa-based programmers who work as part of multinational teams on digital projects.
The WEF claims gender parity is one of its key global issues and the subject will be discussed as this year’s forum, albeit as a side issue.
But a group that is so male and so western needs to be more representative if it is to fulfil its remit as the “World” Economic Forum. No less than 65% of nearly 3,000 delegates at Davos last year were from North America and western Europe, versus just 4% from Africa. So listening to more voices from the developing world – especially female ones – and allowing them to participate would be a good place to start.
US president Barack Obama – who has never attended Davos – stated last year that “the internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity”. Before we embark on the next steps of the global technological revolution, we must ensure that the most basic of online tools are accessible to all.
None of us – including those attending Davos – should be content that something as transformative and integral to our daily lives as the internet remains out of reach for people around the world who have so much to gain in terms of their future prosperity by getting connected.
Professor Henrietta Moore is director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity