Gender equality is not just a basic human right. It is also a cornerstone of a thriving, contemporary economy that fosters sustainable, inclusive growth. Acknowledging that gender equality is crucial ensures that both men and women can contribute fully to advancing societies and economies.

The path forward is challenging. According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development called ‘Bridging the Digital Gender Divide’, globally, approximately 327 million fewer women than men have access to smartphones and the mobile Internet.

Women are underrepresented in Information and communications technologies (ICT) positions, senior management roles, and academia. Men are four times more likely than women to work as ICT specialists. On average, only 0.5 per cent of girls express interest in becoming ICT professionals at 15 years old, compared to 5pc of boys. Women-led startups receive 23pc less funding and have a 30pc lower chance of a successful exit than those led by men.

Locally, as technology and internet usage continue to expand in Pakistan, the issue of the digital gender divide remains a critical concern. Despite a significant increase in internet users, with a rise of 22 million (35.9pc) between 2021 and 2022, overall internet penetration remains below 40pc, according to a United Nations Development Programme blog. This gap is even more pronounced from a gender perspective, highlighting the urgent need for interventions to bridge this divide.

Approximately 327 million fewer women than men have access to smartphones and mobile internet, says OECD report

Barriers such as limited access, affordability issues, inadequate education, and ingrained and socio-cultural norms and biases hinder women and girls from properly taking advantage of the opportunities presented by digital transformation. Furthermore, girls’ lower enrollment in educational fields crucial for success in the digital era — science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and ICT — combined with women’s and girls’ less frequent use of digital tools may result in widening disparities and increased inequality.

While the Gender Inclusion Strategy shows promise, it lacks the depth and specificity needed for effective national-level interventions. Despite good research, the Digital Gender Inclusion Strategy has failed to provide a new way forward. Its reliance on traditional approaches and a reluctance to embrace innovation hinder its effectiveness.

Gender-disaggregated data is crucial for understanding women’s specific needs, preferences, and challenges. Conducting further research is essential for tailoring interventions and monitoring progress effectively. Policymakers need to adopt a forward-thinking approach, incentivising innovation and collaboration.

This divide necessitates the creation of more adaptable opportunities for adults to enhance their skills and coordination among various entities, including educational and training institutions, employers, and social policy institutions. Online or video-based training and tutorials can especially assist women in maximising their use of digital tools and deriving greater value from them.

On a positive note, the latest Karandaaz Financial Inclusion Survey (K-FIS), which monitors access to financial services in Pakistan, indicates a significant increase in women’s financial inclusion.

For the first time in the survey, female financial inclusion has entered double digits, reaching 13pc. The rise is primarily attributed to a significant increase in the adoption of mobile money wallets among women, with the proportion of adult women using mobile money rising from 2pc in 2020 to 6pc in 2022. Additionally, there was a notable increase in the number of bank accounts held by women, with the percentage climbing from 5pc in 2020 to 8pc in 2022.

According to a UN Women report, women perform 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, limiting their availability for paid work or self-improvement. Initiatives focused on increasing awareness, challenging gender stereotypes, and promoting gender-neutral parental leave and childcare services would help address societal norms, attitudes, and behaviours related to childcare and household responsibilities. This, in turn, would facilitate greater female participation in digital and regular job markets and training.

Enhancing coordination among government agencies, civil society organisations, private sector entities, and international partners is crucial for effective implementation. Government entities like the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication have a crucial role in crafting policies, distributing resources, and overseeing implementation.

Non-governmental organisations can offer grassroots insights, mobilise communities, and advocate for a strategy to effectively address women’s needs. Corporate organisations, including telecom companies, fintech firms, and financial institutions, can provide technical knowledge, resources, and innovative solutions to improve women’s digital access and inclusion.

International collaborators, such as UN agencies, bilateral donors, and multilateral organisations, can provide technical aid, financial backing, and global best practices to enhance the strategy’s effectiveness and sustainability. By working together, Pakistan can make significant strides towards bridging the digital gender gap and creating a more inclusive digital society.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 20th, 2024

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