Digital gender gap: a challenge for Latin America accelerated by the pandemic
Some literature aims to show that there is nothing more inclusive in this world than technology. It brings remote villages closer, makes life easier for the disabled, allows for medical diagnosis without the need for physical presence, and provides job opportunities by shortening distances and crossing borders.
Among these advantages that equalize and integrate is also the incorporation of women to the global economy. New technologies provide access to world markets and therefore can offer more opportunities for female incorporation into the global economy at a lower cost. Thanks to technology and teleworking, it can be argued that work interruptions for women due to motherhood are reduced. Furthermore, it is estimated that artificial intelligence and other technologies will mainly affect manual tasks in jobs where mostly men are employed.
However, technology is not as fair as it seems. The digital world is in the hands of very few actors and digital gender equality is still a utopia, despite the progress that has been achieved.
So, how do technological changes affect Latin American women? How willing are they to incorporate digital devices to their daily lives? Are there different perceptions about the impact of technological change between women and men in the region?
In a survey carried out between the Institute for Integration of Latin America (INTAL) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Latinobarómetro, we were able to document the gender gap in the midst of the digital age. We could attest to the fact that Latin American women are less familiar with the uses and the advantages of mobile phones and the web. From the use of cell phones for banking transactions -37% of women compared to 40% of men-, to supervising electrical appliances with their mobile phones –with 6% more men utilizing this service-, the gender gap exists.
Furthermore, women perceive themselves to be less prepared than men for the jobs of the future (4% less), and they put up greater resistance than men to the advance of robots; 37% of Latin American women consider these to be a threat to humanity (compared to 34% of the men).
When consulted on the importance of introducing children to new technologies from an early age, women agree to this idea less than men (53% vs. 67%). The gender gap in this sense (13 points on average) reaches its maximum in Costa Rica (36 points) while in El Salvador, Bolivia and Peru differences are closer to 20 points.
In a context where new training modalities are emerging (gamification, use of mobile phones and new forms of online training), women in the region are also more reluctant than men to allow their children to receive classes through the web (with a gap of 7 percentage points). Today, as a consequence of the pandemic, these numbers are probably even higher, and the gap certainly persists.
Why is there such a disparity? What are the origins and the reasons for its existence? According to a study carried out in Argentina together with the Girls in Technology team, we concluded that of every three students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers, only one is a woman. This imbalance in training also persists in the rest of the region.
Generally speaking, no one wants to study something that they know nothing about, have no idea how it functions, or that is distant from them. We choose our college career based on family and social stereotypes, which continue throughout our years at university; these stereotypes lead us to believe that we are not good at math or that engineering and mathematical careers are destined for men.
During our work life, we can also find practices of horizontal and labor segregation. Women experience what is known as "sticky ground" –which prevents us to move and scale up in our professional career- as well as the difficulty to overcome the "glass ceilings" –which impede our access to hierarchical positions. Spaces that have been conquered by a male majority, where we have no possibility of entering, is another experience that we face quite frequently in the field of new technologies. Particularly in this field, metaphors such as "leaky pipeline" are used to describe the situation where women start an educational or professional journey but gradually abandon it, either for personal reasons or due to institutional barriers, stereotypes and other forms of discrimination.
Currently, the advance of COVID-19, which appears to have accelerated the process of digital transformation globally, is far from being an opportunity for women. This digital inequality that was already evident in the pre-pandemic era will grow even more in the post-pandemic period, widening the employment gap. It is evident that we women, even more so today, bear most of the burden of doing the housework and caring for our children, with even greater difficulties to dedicate ourselves to our paid employment and to incorporate new skills. A survey carried out in 6 countries of the region by the Bumeran employment portal concluded that, although 92.5% of people saw their labor productivity decreased with confinement and remote work, women with children were the most affected: 18.6% of women without children believe that their productivity has totally changed, while in the case of mothers the number increases to 62.4%.
We cannot produce change on our own. We need reforms that redistribute the domestic work and unpaid care that mostly women do in a more equitable way, as well as new policies that reconcile family and work life, as well as mechanisms that encourage the hiring of women and strengthen the gender perspective in employment and education policies.
We also need urgent measures that directly reduce the digital gender gap: scholarships for women in science and technology –more female technosapiens; digital education for girls; and actions to promote an aspirational effect towards careers associated with STEM, with women as role models. And finally, we need quotas in companies and in the public administration for female workers with these skills.
A new scenario is needed for the construction of a new world . An era where women acquire digital prominence and technology is truly for everyone.
Ana Basco is an economist and political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires, and an Integration Specialist at the Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).