© Helvetas Ethiopia

3 Considerations for Making Digitalization More Gender & Socially Inclusive

BY: Agnieszka Kroskowska, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 04. May 2020
© Helvetas Ethiopia

How can the benefits of digitalization be more inclusive to the more often “left behind” – women and disadvantaged groups? The COVID-19 pandemic has quickened the pace of digitalization. To effectively tap into the opportunities, first, it’s important to consider the needs and capacities of women and other disadvantaged groups; they’re likely to have low or no digital skills and are at greater risk of being socially and economically excluded. Second, under the changing nature of work, women and other disadvantaged groups who succeed in finding employment are typically hired into low-skilled, low-productivity positions, often in the informal sector. Third, digitalization is about much more than economic and social issues – it’s also a fundamental human right issue concerning the right to privacy, expression, and movement.


Artificial intelligence…. Big data…. Cloud computing… Mobile robotics… These are innovations that we hear often about digitalization.

Sometimes we may be alarmed by the possibility of negative effects of worsening gender and social inequality due to the digital divide. The real picture, however, is mixed.

At its best, digitalization supports inclusion and participation, helping to reduce time burdens, enhancing informed life choices, improving access to services, increasing representation in decision making, and connecting and informing in responsible and accountable ways.

On the flip side – at its worst – digitalization widens exclusion and disconnection for the un/der educated, under/illiterate, un/der employed, who live in remote areas and in poverty. It can also increase misinformation, leading to ill-informed decisions and unsafe life choices, exposing already vulnerable people to new risks such as online trafficking, harassment and mobbing, recruitment into illicit activities, increased debt, and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of digitalization. It’s shaped the way we live and work.

However, the bigger question is: what does the rapid digital transformation mean for more gender and socially inclusive future? Three key issues are worth considering.

Emphasizing the obvious: one size doesn’t fit all

The pros and cons of access to information and technology for women and other disadvantaged groups need to be carefully weighed. Facilitating access to digital processes requires a package of resources, knowledge, skills, and practices to be supported. It should also involve a broad group of stakeholders, for more sustainable impacts and risk reduction.

Often, we tend to consider mainly, if not only, socio-economic factors. Yet, the realities on the ground are more complex.  Our good intentions can remain just wishes or even can-do harm without paying attention to culture, family, and regulation. These factors shape conflict of interest and influence power dynamics, affecting gender, rural-urban, digital and other divides.

While we shouldn’t be alarmed, we need to consider a broad range of factors that are more likely to worsen the conditions for women and other disadvantaged groups. They’re already less likely to be online and are more likely to have low or no digital skills and are at greater risk of being socially, economically and politically excluded by the digital disruption underway.

But how?

One way is challenging stereotypes – inspiring more women to follow in the steps of leadership, and engaging men in breaking social and cultural barriers, and perceptions regarding women’s work.

In Kosovo, Helvetas, and its partner MDA collaborated with the World Bank in the “Women in Online Work” pilot that proved online work has the potential to offer huge opportunities. It provides new avenues for job creation, even in the most remote and rural areas. Yet, we also gained valuable lessons: including people with disabilities didn’t go well; we also failed to consider the basics: English, which was key to find jobs on the digital job market.

Another way is working with and influencing local financial institutions, businesses, employers and other public/private service providers to comply with their obligations as well as to see the potential for business and local economic development benefits of gender and social inclusion.

Rural households in Nepal have little idea of the nutrient requirements of the crops that they grow or the balance of nutrients in the soil, or whether they need to apply more or less fertilizer or re-cycled materials for optimal yields. This is where a beta version of a mobile application called Crop-Nu offers a solution. It uses existing data sets and makes them usable for farmers. Other stakeholders like municipalities are taking up the initiative, contributing to good potential for upscaling.

In Tanzania too, mobile learning units are offering hopes for disadvantaged youth living in remote areas. “I like this male world. I want to show that women can do whatever men can,” says a confident Elizabeth Jackison, 28, who is participating in mobile learning units. “Even though I am not the first female builder here, I am perhaps only the second or third. I want to make history and become a manager,” continues Elizabeth.

There’s growing evidence of the benefits of investing in women and other disadvantaged groups to be able to access, use, participate in and benefit from digital and automated technologies and services. This happens through promoting digital skills and education, including re-skilling, and lifelong learning programs.

Digitalization & the world of work – what does it mean to women & other disadvantaged groups?

Many activities that employees carry out today are being automated. New opportunities are arising while job relationships are changing – new forms of worker/machine interaction and new forms of jobs and employment (from fulltime to part-time). Some jobs, which rely on routine activities, are lost. Others are shifting because of the development of digital platforms and crowd working.

Overall, women and other disadvantaged groups seem to lose more than gain in the changing nature of work. They have lower access to, use, and participation in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

First, there is a huge gap in basic education, literacy, and numeracy. While there’s much progress, gender gaps persist, limiting from the outset a girl or young woman’s potential to benefit from or work in the ICT sector.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the participation of women in the ICT sector is around 28%, still significantly below the general average of around 43% across all industries. In the MarketMakers project, Helvetas and its consortium partner Kolektiv collaborate with Academy for Women to support women who are inactive on the labor market or unemployed to work online as freelancers. This is about an informative web platform that reduced information gaps and asymmetries and encourages young women and men to enter the labor market as freelancers.

Second, the transition to and attainment of secondary or higher education, or lifelong learning is also more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups. Without this, opportunities to access related vocational skills development and employment in the ICT sector become very limited, if not impossible.

Flexible learning programs allow women and other disadvantaged groups to improve their skills at their convenience. One of the key features in the changing nature of work is traditional education and training systems are evolving towards lifelong learning.

In the Shamerto project in Bangladesh, Helvetas facilitates the skills, employability, and income of workers and entrepreneurs of small, micro, and cottage agro-food processing enterprises. This is done by using a transparent system to identify disadvantaged people which is also easy to manage and can generate reliable, real-time, disaggregated, and inclusive data.  

Most jobs will require specific skills (e.g. a combination of technological know-how, problem-solving, and critical thinking as well as soft skills). Helvetas together with Partners Albania works in the RisiAlbania project to address such a challenge through distant and affordable skills development courses. 

Digital transformation as human rights

Digitalization can support awareness of rights and strengthen exercising one’s rights related to access to information, cultural and political participation. However, this depends on how women and other disadvantaged groups (and their families and communities) are supported in knowledge, skills, and practices to exercise these rights responsibly and safely.

In Tajikistan, Helvetas supports the empowerment of the vulnerable members of society to have access to the legal aid system. Social activists collect information on the types of cases that are typically dealt with at the Legal Aid Clinics, such as alimony, property rights, and domestic violence. By using tablets, it has become much easier and more cost-efficient for social activists to collect and analyze the data. This has provided sound evidence on what are the pressing social and legal issues faced by communities.

A critical consideration is being mindful to not fall victim to or contribute to ‘fake’ information/ news, be respectful of diversity in culture and opinion, freedom of choice, and representation among others.

The Property Tax Reform Program (MED) initiative in Serbia makes it easier – 24/7, no matter where people are – and more transparent for citizens and businesses by reducing “red tape” to pay property taxes online in one central place by using any credit card or any common online banking service. This has brought positive systemic impact through strong coordination effort considering the reform’s complexity (including the national and policy level).

Women’s access to, capacity to use, the right to benefit from an added value in ICT becomes in some cases a matter of life and death, even more so in an emergency or crises. The COVID-19 pandemic makes such a need more pressing.

Digitalization can enhance good governance, but can also infringe on people’s right to privacy, expression, and movement, especially in increasingly insecure times, where governments and authorities may impose certain restrictions or measures which increase supervision and control of populations.

With the COVID-19 lockdown, there is a risk of “normalization of intrusive digital surveillance,” cautions Sonya Sceats, Associate Fellow at Chatham House. This may lead to “restrictions on liberty for other reasons well into the future”.  

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Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies