Breaking Barriers: why digital inclusion is crucial for business
According to current university application data, 35% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) students are women but, diving deeper into the data, men accounted for 81% of those on computer sciences-related courses. This may explain, in part, why the theme of 2023’s International Women’s Day, an event set up by the United Nations both to honour women’s accomplishments and raise awareness about gender disparities, is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”.
In highlighting the importance of improved technological integration for women, UN research found that 37% of women do not use the internet, and 259 million fewer women have access to the internet than men. Whilst such a shocking statistic reflects a multiplicity of socio-economic and cultural barriers in play, the fact remains that if women are unable to get online then, aside from restricting their ability to engage in political participation or access digital health services, this clearly limits their opportunity to study STEM subjects and then pursue careers in STEM jobs.
It’s therefore not entirely surprising to learn that according to STEM Women, only around 1 in 4 of those working in the UK STEM industry are women, a percentage that, whilst a marginal improvement on previous years, must strike fear into the hearts of business leaders who are accountable to gender-targets.
As is recognised by the UN Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report, bringing women into more STEM roles results in “more creative solutions and has greater potential for innovations that meet women’s needs and promote gender equality”. It is also noted that excluding women from the digital world has shaved $1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low and middle-income countries in the last ten years, a loss that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025 without action.
And it’s not just the tech sector that needs to change. Businesses from all industries need to do more in supporting women’s development at all levels, offer more women leadership roles, review salaries to close the gender pay gap, celebrate female success and, most importantly, encourage open conversations. It is not simply the case of encouraging the presence of more women in business but it’s about promoting deep-rooted change. There are still many unseen barriers and too much ‘unconscious gender bias’ in the workplace.
Specifically, in addressing the digital divide, corporates should design and implement gender-responsive digital skills programmes, such as Microsoft’s TechHer initiative, champion awareness-raising campaigns that challenge digital gender stereotypes, and support women’s networking and peer-to-peer opportunities so increasing digital literacy and exchange.
Increasing inclusion of women in digital roles results in improved retention of top talent and greater gender-diverse companies. More generally, evidence has long shown that gender-diverse companies deliver better returns, and have outperformed, on average, less diverse companies over the past five years. These factors show the importance of this year’s IWD theme in highlighting the role that all company stakeholders have in improving women’s accessibility to digital tools and roles.
We have come so far, but still have a long way to go.