Digital Technology Accelerates Global Gender Equality

(HBR) In every industry, digital technologies are transforming the status quo. Now we have evidence that they are also bringing us closer to workplace equality. Digital fluency is helping to level the playing field between men and women at work.

Recent research from Accenture, “Getting to Equal: How Digital Is Helping Close the Gender Gap at Work,” found that when men and women have the same level of digital fluency — defined as the extent to which they embrace and use digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected, and effective — women are better at using those digital skills to gain more education and to find work.

Accenture surveyed nearly 5,000 men and women in 31 countries, exploring their use of technology, including access to devices like smartphones and wireless wearable devices, and the frequency with which they use them. Essentially, we looked at people’s ability to use technology in their everyday life and work, and how well they use it.

Respondents were also asked about their education and careers, including whether they’d ever taken virtual courses through an online university, whether they use social media or online job postings to access employment opportunities, and whether they use instant messaging or webcams to collaborate at work.

We combined our survey findings with data from organizations such as the World Bank on education enrollment, labor participation rates, and the rates of women in managerial roles. Our analysis found strong evidence that digital fluency is helping women gain employment and attain higher levels of education, and that it is increasingly important in helping women advance at work. Digital fluency appears to be helping women access opportunities that didn’t exist before, such as the sharing economy and online learning, and it is critical for the flexibility they need to find and stay in jobs.

The study predicts that if we can double the pace at which women become frequent users of digital technologies, the workplace could reach gender equality by 2040 in developed nations and by 2060 in developing nations. At the current pace such equality won’t be achieved until 2065 in developed nations and 2100 in developing countries. This is a huge leap forward.

The study also examined differences between countries and found that nations with higher rates of digital fluency among women have higher rates of gender equality in the workplace. For example, the U.S., the Netherlands, the UK, and the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland) have the highest digital fluency scores and rank among the top performers in workplace equality.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, have reasonable levels of digital fluency yet are not achieving the outcomes we would expect. In these cases cultural factors are another significant consideration.

The largest gaps between the digital fluency of men and women appear in Japan, Singapore, France, and Switzerland. There, increasing women’s fluency to the level of men’s will help drive equality in the workplace, though as indicated above, Japan has additional challenges to overcome.

These findings come at a critical time, as companies and governments face a gulf between the skills they need to stay competitive and the talent available.

In a recent report, the World Economic Forum identified high skills instability across all job categories and acknowledged that most businesses currently face major recruitment challenges and talent shortages. In another report, from the Business Roundtable, 97% of CEOs said that the skills gap was a problem for their companies, with approximately 60% of job openings requiring basic digital or STEM literacy and 42% requiring advanced digital or STEM knowledge.

Given this environment, women are a significant source of untapped talent in the global workforce, and increasing their digital fluency can help move them into the jobs that employers have trouble filling.

The link between digital fluency, education attainment, employment, and workplace equality should be adequate motivation for governments to take a leading role in encouraging women to become more digitally fluent. To start, governments should focus on providing women with greater access to broadband internet at an affordable price. Some governments are already taking steps in this direction.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission just approved a $9.25 monthly broadband subsidy for low-income households. Additionally, the federal government launchedDigitalLiteracy.gov as a resource for schools and community centers that are delivering digital literacy training to local communities. At the same time, libraries have become a focal point for digital literacy efforts across the U.S., as several national nonprofit initiatives, such as EveryoneOn, are delivering training at the local level.

Finland has defined access to the internet at broadband speeds as a legal right and has pursued a universal access policy. In 2014 the UK government published a digital inclusion charter aimed at promoting broadband access “at scale.”

For businesses, access to up-to-date technology and online collaboration tools is critical. Female employees will learn by doing, certainly, but mentorships and training — ranging from basic courses like how to transfer social and networking skills to the digital world to technical courses in coding — are critical to keep women current.

Corporate apprenticeships and training outreach programs can increase the skills of young people. Best Buy, for example, offers free afterschool technical training to students in a number of cities. Based on the success of Switzerland’s national apprenticeship program, which graduates 71% of all Swiss youth, some Swiss multinationals, such as Novartis, Nestlé, Credit Suisse, and Zurich Insurance Group, are experimenting with apprentice programs in markets outside of Switzerland.

For women, recognizing the boost that digital can add to their lives and careers should be a call to action. Our research found that men continue to use digital technologies more frequently than women and are more proactive in learning new digital skills. Knowing how much of a boost digital fluency can provide, women should continuously develop and grow their ability to use the latest technologies, whether by using social media to grow their business networks or by signing up for online courses.

Digital fluency is not a cure-all. It is only one factor in narrowing the gender gap in the workplace, but it is a powerful tool that women, businesses, and governments can use to make a real difference in driving advancement toward workplace gender equality.

Julie Sweet, Harvard Business Review, May 17, 2016

Cynthia de Lorenzi