ASEAN member states have a unique opportunity to meaningfully address the digital gender divide through emerging COVID-19 recovery plans. Early indications from COVID-19 research, as well as evidence from past epidemics, suggest that women, on average, are likely to suffer greater economic and social impact during the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That is for several reasons: Women represent the majority of health and social workers who are in a high-risk category due to significantly higher exposure to the virus; school closures induced by lock-downs automatically translate into extra burdens for women who are most likely to be responsible for child-care; and domestic violence, which affects women primarily, has increased due to lock-down measures in both developed and developing countries.
In many developing countries women make up a large portion of the informal economy and informal workers are more affected by the lockdown as in most cases they cannot telework and are less protected by social safety nets and recovery plans that typically cover formal workers. An additional downside is that in both developed and developing countries, women entrepreneurs face more difficulty in accessing credit, which is fundamental for the survival of their firms in times of economic downturn.
According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2018, more than 60 million women across ASEAN operate businesses, the majority of which are small- and middle-scale enterprises (SMEs).
However, there is a critical and often overlooked reason why women may suffer more, not only now, but also during the post-pandemic economic recovery phase: the lack of women’s participation in the digital economy.
The COVID-19 emergency is catalyzing the shift towards digital economies. This can be seen as offering a silver lining: e-commerce is practical and ideal in times of social distancing, new convenient online services are being developed, online teaching and learning can help regenerate skills of workers in ASEAN economies.
But there is a sizeable risk as well: the transition toward the digital economy must be inclusive. The post-COVID-19 transformation will most likely generate a higher demand for more digitally-related jobs and skills. This means that the “digital divide” has the potential to become an even greater source of inequality.
As a group, women fall under this second category – those lacking digital access and skills. On average women use and access digital technology less often than men: for example, the proportion of women using the internet was 48 percent in 2019 against 58 percent of men globally (according to data from the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency).
This gap has been growing over the last few years in the Asia Pacific region. Some countries in Southeast Asia exhibit great gender disparities as recently shown by analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC): Indonesia, for example, has one of the largest digital gender divides of APEC economies.
Women also lag behind men when it comes to their technological aptitude. Digital skills can be acquired during all education cycles and will be more and more necessary to access higher education levels and professional jobs. Today, a tiny percentage of women in both developed and developing countries access and complete tertiary education programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
According to the World Economic Forum, only 3 percent of graduates from ICT (information and communications technology) educational programs around the world are women, 5 percent for courses in mathematics and statistics and 8 percent in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
These skills are often at the basis of tasks that are becoming key in the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution: problem solving skills, the ability to develop, adapt and supervise machine algorithms, digital interfacing capabilities, the ability to deal with robotics and automation. A combination of these skills is becoming increasingly important to allow all workers – male and female – to participate and excel in the digital economy.
As part of the COVID-19 recovery plans, officials may consider concrete actions to ensure a more inclusive digital economy. Policies and programs can be revamped to empower women and girls to attain the necessary tools and to remove barriers that inhibit their full participation in a new digital world that is unfolding.
We recognize that there are examples of programs and policies in Southeast Asia to address the gender gap, however, they are still relatively limited and do no create widespread change. What we are advocating here is a more widespread and concerted set of activities specifically incorporated into COVID-19 recovery plans.
Some of these actions can be taken at the regional level, for example:
ASEAN and ASEAN member states have a unique opportunity right now to quickly address the gender gaps in the digital economy. It is vital that the region tap into all of its resources now to chart the course through COVID-19 recovery in a manner that facilitates a smooth transition to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Women make up 50 percent of the potential resources in terms of skilled workforce. Let’s make sure that they are part of it.
Giulia Ajmone Marsan and Lydia Ruddy are respectively strategy and partnership director and director of communications at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). The views expressed are their own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.