Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal, a Madrid-based think tank. Ana Basco is an economist 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. To read the original piece, click here.
Even before the pandemic, digitalization has caused a productive and social revolution that has transformed the way we work and produce value, allowing us to generate, transmit, and analyze enormous amounts of data instantly. From an optimistic view of technological change, digital technologies create equal opportunities. It enhances the quality of life for people with disabilities, promotes small and medium-sized companies in global markets, connects rural regions with the world, facilitates remote work or distance medical diagnosis… and even diminishes gender disparity.
New technologies boost access to global markets while offering more chances for women’s inclusion at a lower cost. Moreover, as the cost is cheaper, digitalization allows for maternity-associated career interruptions without expelling women from the workplace. The resulting task automatization also affects more men than women as it mainly replaces physical activities carried out by men.
Nevertheless, technological progress leads to an asymmetrical distribution of benefits in some circumstances and opportunities are not always equally distributed among countries, companies, or people. Gender-based digital disparity was a reality well before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2018 Latinobarómetro, the Instituto para Integración de América Latina y el Caribe (INTAL), and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), women are less familiarized with the use of mobile apps and digital platforms—let alone conscious of their potential. The most accepted digital practice is using mobile phones to pay bills (37 percent of women and 40 percent of men). Gender gaps also appear in: controlling appliances and health via mobile phones (6 and 2 percent less respectively), and generating income through digital platforms (2 percent less).
Women disagree more than men on introducing boys and girls to new technologies from a young age (53 percent versus 67 percent). At the same time, they are less likely to let their children have online classes (7 percent gap). Unsurprisingly, women perceive themselves as less prepared for the jobs of the future (4 percent less).
Perhaps as a result, or as an explanation, women feel less inclined toward careers associated with new technologies. According to an INTAL and “Chicas en Tecnología” study in Argentina, only 1 in 3 students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers are women. This data is not unique across the region.
It is possible that the social effects of COVID-19 are accelerating the digital transformation process. Companies across the globe are incorporating more technology into their daily work. Kids have adapted to online school, workers to telework, and students to college life online; even elders are using these tools to communicate with their families or pay bills digitally to avoid contagion.
Will the pandemic increase or decrease the gender gap? Is coronavirus-induced digital acceleration an opportunity for women?
Studies show that, during the pandemic, women take on more house chores and children-related tasks. They are having greater difficulties in dedicating time to their paying jobs and learning new skills.
CEPAL estimates that school closures in 37 Latin American and Caribbean countries forced at least 113 million girls, boys, and teenagers to stay at home. This demands 24-hour attention to this age group which overloads families’ time, particularly women’s. In these regions, women dedicate at least 3 times more time per day than men to unpaid domestic and care work.
In addition, women report feeling less productive. Job platform, Bumeran, conducted a poll in six Latin American countries which concluded that, although 92.5 percent of people felt their work productivity lowered due to lockdown and remote work, women with children were the most affected. Over 18 percent of women without children believe their productivity changed completely whereas 62.4 percent of mothers reported the same feeling.
In the scientific field the widening gap is evident. According to The Scientist, recent studies showed a significant drop in female scientist productivity on a global scale—especially for women at the beginning of their careers—contrary to their male colleagues. The gap is especially broad for COVID-19 researchers. When asked why this phenomenon is happening, most interviewed researchers agreed that it is due to increased time spent on children’s care, the responsibility of which disproportionately falls to women. At the same time, they are worried the pandemic will deepen the under-representation of women in scientific research, affecting women’s careers as well as research quality.
Although there are few studies on the pandemic-induced gender gap growth in the technology industry, there are indications that it is undergoing the same phenomenon. While the pandemic, lockdown, and school closure last, there will be no extra time for women to grow their skills and continue their career path.
Reforms that reduce gender inequality are essential. Also, it is key to focus on redistributing unpaid domestic and care work—mostly carried out by women—as well as: developing life-work balance policies; fostering women hiring and participation on high-level positions in male-dominated sectors; and strengthening gender perspectives in labor and education policies. One example that may help combat the gender gap would be for governments to enact measures to reduce the public deficit that affects social programs.
Measures that directly reduce the gender-based digital disparity and help women access new technologies will also be crucial. These measures should promote scholarships for women in science and technology, promote digital education for girls, and develop aspirational programming around STEM-associated careers through female role models. Moreover, they should implement minimum quotas in the public and private sector for STEM-skilled women.
Essential changes are urgent now more than ever. The world needs everyone it can get as we attempt to kickstart the global economy and that includes women.