The opportunities and perils of the digital age for gender equality

 

Last month (6-17 March 2023) gender equality activists convened at the Sixty-seventh Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York and virtually. This year’s theme was centred on, “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”.  This theme is under the banner of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality), sub-target 5.B – to enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women. On the one hand, technology can be a powerful means of advancing gender equality by opening up new avenues for education, employment, and civic participation. Gender inequalities, on the other hand, can be perpetuated or even exacerbated by technology if it remains exclusionary and used in ways that perpetuate existing biases and discrimination.

What are the opportunities and challenges of the digital age for gender equality?

The Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, The Gender Snapshot 2022 Report finds that a large gender gap in technology and innovation. Data from the report indicates that women hold only 2 in every 10 science, engineering and information and communication technology jobs. At the 20 largest global technology companies, 33 percent of the workforce is comprised of women, yet only one in four women are in leadership positions.

While the COVID-19 pandemic significantly shifted economies and education systems online there is a growing and inequitable gender divide. UNICEF’s Gender and Innovation Evidence briefs highlight the fact that most data tends to focus on the digital gender gap among adults versus children, but where data is available, adolescent girls aged 15–19 years were less likely than adolescent boys to have used the internet in the past 12 months, and also have lower mobile phone ownership. In South Asia, rates of internet use among adolescent boys were double in comparison to adolescent girls in Nepal, and up to four times higher than adolescent girls in Pakistan. Phone ownership was almost 30% higher among boys in Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Another key concern in the digital sphere is data privacy and exposure of women and girls to abuse that is online or enabled through technology.  Additionally, the creation and use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other automated systems may produce or  amplify  gendered divisions, for example, ethnic and gender biases in speech detection and prediction models are shown to be strong, with implications for whose voice is (un)heard and how.

Digital technology offers various opportunities to strengthen sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programming and to reach youth. Recent statistics show that 70% of the world’s youth aged 15- 24 years are online. Many young people are turning towards online platforms to access SRHR information (e.g. how to prevent teenage pregnancy or HIV, where to access an abortion) and services (such as remote medical consultations and e-prescriptions for sensitive or stigmatised conditions).

The promise of digital technology and gamification for comprehensive sexuality education is emerging in the literature – digital platforms are argued to offer a potential avenue to complement traditional classroom delivery of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) reaching adolescents, but also the potential to scale-up online training for educators. Across the world there are also an increasing number of applications to report gender-based-violence and other safety issues. A digitally inclusive health system can facilitate universal health coverage (UHC) by reducing costs, saving time for patients, overcoming distances.

The Agreed Conclusions for CSW67 were confirmed by Member States and will be submitted to United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in September for final agreement, these are the top picks which stand out:

  • A firm commitment to the landmark Beijing Declaration of Action
  • The Commission recognizes that digital technologies have profoundly transformed societies and has the potential to accelerate the realization of the 2030 Agenda.
  • The Commission expresses concern about the unequal pace of digital transformation within and among countries.
  • The Commission recognizes that adolescent girls are part of the most digitally connected generation in history, and can disproportionately face discrimination and violence as a result.
  • The Commission recognizes the important contributions of women and girls to education, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and innovation.
  • The Commission recognizes the of role digital platforms can play for women to advocate, mobilize and participate fully, equally and meaningfully in public life.
  • The Commission notes that emerging digital technologies remain widely unregulated.
  • The Commission recognizes that the digitalization of health-care services can positively influence health outcomes for all women and girls and contribute towards achieving UHC.

While these are strong and important commitments to leveraging digital technology for both SDG 3 and SDG 5 (better health and gender equality), in a world where international and domestic financing is diminishing, climate change is significantly impacting infrastructure, the high costs of digital technology (e.g. equipment and internet costs), implementation will be key but it will not be an easy feat. Implementation of these key commitments fall to many stakeholders, but it is a collective responsibility with simple interventions which even we have the responsibility to drive such as supporting data costs for youth participants in webinars or online learning.

About the authors:

Parteek Sharma is a masters student, studying public health at the University of Warwick

Shakira Choonara is a multi-award-winning public health practitioner and bold activist, she is currently appointed to roles at UN Women and the World Health Organization as well as serves as a Lancet Commissioner on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing

Bronwyn Harris is a global health researcher with a particular interest in social justice and digital health systems. She is Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Warwick and Director of the Warwick-iHeed Masters in Public Health and Health Promotion.

Competing interests: None

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

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