Give a man a fishing rod and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime, they say. For women around the world today, regular access to Wi-Fi and a smartphone would prove much more useful to achieving economic security.
A recent Accenture report found that boosting women’s “digital fluency” — their access to the web and basic mobile devices that most Westerners take for granted — is among the most effective ways to close the global gender gap. Globally, women benefit when they can get online to find information on better-paid work and more successful careers. And leveling the digital playing field this way helps to make the world’s workplaces more equitable for all employees.
Across the globe, women are still paid less than men, and they are often excluded from the formal workforce altogether. But doubling the rate at which women can use digital tools would cut in half the time needed to reach global gender parity, Accenture found, and bring almost 100 million additional women into the workforce.
So, what does a worldwide information revolution for working women look like? Here are a few possibilities.
Big Impact in the Developing World
Most of the benefits to come from boosting digital fluency would be in the developing world, as women there face more pressing challenges and have less overall access to digital tools than women in Europe or America, says Barbara Harvey, managing director at Accenture Research. “The potential there is so much greater, so you affect so many more people,” she says.
Gains are already being felt as cheaper telecommunication technologies filter into poor, rural areas. In Tanzania, for instance, women in remote villages are using smartphones to map property boundaries and secure land-ownership rights, while midwives are sending text messages to order birth certificates for young girls, which helps them access schooling, health care and basic financial services.
In Bangladesh, many female factory workers are now paid through mobile-app-based money-transfer services, giving them more control over earnings that have been traditionally often confiscated by their husbands or mothers-in-law.
And in Nigeria, female entrepreneurs are using mobile devices to build customer bases in areas they can’t travel to safely in person, and to develop professional relationships with men, with whom it can be socially inappropriate for them to meet one-on-one.
Making Work More Accessible
In the developed world, of course, most people already have phones and web access, so reaping the benefits of new technologies is a more complex notion, and the gains aren’t always as clear-cut. Still, having basic digital gadgets like a phone or a laptop can make a big difference to women, Harvey says.
Consider a woman who has a 90-minute commute to her office: Give her the tools to work remotely, and you’ve dramatically boosted her productivity and her earning potential. “Suddenly she can work from home, and that hour and half can become paid work,” Harvey says. “Her working day increases by three hours.”
For working mothers, especially, the flexibility offered by new technologies can open more opportunities. One recent morning, PowerToFly founder Katharine Zaleski took her week-old baby to the pediatrician, came home, settled him down quietly at her side — then grabbed her phone and called a journalist to discuss her diversity-in-hiring startup.
That kind of gear-crunching change in roles — from new mom to president of a company with $7.5 million in early stage funding — is all in a day’s work for the modern woman, Zaleski says. Thanks to teleconferencing systems, Google Docs, Skype and other staples of the digital workplace, it’s possible for women to work more flexibly, participate more fully in the labor force and successfully juggle work and family life in ways that previous generations could not.
Even just a few decades ago, most women left the workforce after having children or saw their careers take a backseat to raising them, Zaleski says. “There was no way my mother, back in the 1980s, could have stayed connected to her job without email or a [mobile] phone,” she says. “The tools we have today are huge drivers for gender diversity and inclusion.”
The Benefits Aren’t Distributed Equally
Of course, it’s easy enough for a woman who runs her own company to use technology to improve her working life. As her own boss, Zaleski didn’t have to persuade anyone to let her work from home, or ask permission to stay connected during her maternity leave.
Many women aren’t so lucky: Big companies like Yahoo, Bank of America and IBM are all walking back their remote-working policies. There’s little benefit to having technologies that allow flexible working if your bosses are philosophically opposed to telecommuting.
There’s also a risk that the benefits of increased flexibility will accrue to the employer, not the employee. Flexibility made possible by the gig economy might be a lifeline for some workers, but it can leave others scrambling from one poorly paid gig to another, living without benefits or a steady paycheck — a situation plenty of mothers are already familiar with around the world.
That’s especially bad news for women, with a growing body of data showing that the biases women face in the conventional workplace are amplified in the gig economy. Bosses who lack a continuing relationship with workers often default to instinctive judgements — including gender stereotypes — when making decisions about who to hire and how much to pay them.
“An increasingly freelance workforce may make the problem of male privilege even worse,” warns Hernán Galperin, Research Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Just a Band-Aid?
For conventional employers, there’s a risk that new technologies can serve as a kind of Band-Aid, allowing companies to present themselves as champions of gender equity without actually doing much to change the status quo.
The increasing use of digital tools across workplaces is creating a firehose of data that companies can use to monitor diversity and inclusion, identify problems and develop creative solutions, says Patti Fletcher, a leadership futurist with SAP SuccessFactors.
That’s a good thing, Fletcher says, but measurement alone doesn’t change anything. Organizations can make grandiose public statements about their values, collect swaths of data about their diversity practices — and then fail to convert those insights into any kind of meaningful action.
That’s rather like publicly announcing that you’ll run a marathon, ostentatiously mapping out a diet and exercise regime, then slumping onto a couch and never actually hitting the pavement. “If you focus on analytics but don’t change anything about what you’re doing, you’re really missing the boat,” Fletcher warns.
Walking the Walk
For companies that genuinely want to make a difference for women, there are plenty of ways to use technology to drive gender equity — and many are much more sophisticated than simply giving your female employees company laptops.
One promising option is to use tech such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to disrupt existing decision-making processes in ways that can nudge managers into making more equitable decisions.
That can be as simple as using automated CV-sorting tools that highlight the best candidates for a job, regardless of their gender. But it can also involve thoughtfully baking AI tools into the processes of mid-level managers whose evaluations often determine which employees are given a chance to progress into more senior roles.
While AI systems certainly aren’t immune from bias, companies like SAP are creating machine-learning platforms that can spot a manager inadvertently penalizing a female employee for taking time out for family, for instance, and prompt them to reconsider their decision. “Ultimately, what you’re doing is giving your people the ability to make critical, informed decisions,” Fletcher says. “We have the technology, and it really feels like a tipping point.”
Finding Power in Numbers
New technologies are also making it easier for female employees to share information, whether through internal social networks or third-party websites and services.
As the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s easier than ever for women to support one another, to speak out against unjust or abusive workplace behavior and to find strategies for coping with challenges. “There’s nothing like power in numbers,” Fletcher says. “The voice we have if we all come together? That’s powerful.”
It’s especially important when it comes to combating the pay gap. Overall, women currently earn just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, with three quarters of U.S. companies paying male employees more.
Making it easier for workers to share salary information — as companies like Whole Foods and CrowdFunder now routinely do, and as younger workers are increasingly willing to do — makes it harder for unequal pay practices to continue, and gives women (and their male allies) the information they need to advocate for change. “If you know what you’re being paid and what your coworkers are being paid, it allows the conversation to at least begin,” University of Baltimore law professor Nancy Modessit told CNN.
Technology Alone Isn’t Enough
At the end of the day, however, technology only brings the tools; you still need a supportive culture and strong leadership to use them to impact gender equity positively. It doesn’t matter how much access to tech a woman has if her supervisors aren’t willing to let her work remotely. And flashy AI tools won’t bring about change unless there’s a genuine commitment from senior leaders to make inclusion a priority.
Part of the issue is that, while a company’s commitment to diversity needs to be driven by the C-suite, the solutions themselves need to be aligned to the actual needs of female employees. That can only happen if managers ask women what they want and need, then work to understand their answers, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global diversity officer at Sodexo.
On a recent trip to India, Anand met with a group of female middle-managers. She walked in full of ideas about how to help them climb the career ladder, but the conversation soon took an unexpected turn.
“I thought I knew all the answers, and I went in with fancy notions of development for women. But when I sat down and had conversations with women in entry-level management roles and asked what they wanted, I was stunned by their answers,” Anand says.
It turned out that many of the women lived with their husband’s parents — a common arrangement in India — and, after working all day, were expected to cook and clean for the whole family. These women didn’t want AI recruitment tools or a fancier smartphone; they wanted a way to show their mothers-in-law that they were doing important work outside the home.
Anand threw a lavish awards ceremony to honor the young women. “We made a big deal out of it, so that the mothers-in-law could see that their daughters-in-law were respected and well-regarded,” she says. “It shifted some of that dynamic at home.”
Listen to Your Employees
Zaleski recalls that, after the birth of her first child, she felt sidelined by colleagues who — thinking they were protecting her — wound up excluding her from conversations and decisions she would have preferred to be a part of.
“Overnight, I went from an executive at a company to someone whose job was changing diapers, and it was terrible,” she says.
Some women prefer to unplug from their working lives during maternity leave, and that’s perfectly OK, Zaleski says. But it’s a decision that each woman should be allowed to make for herself. And when women decide they want to stay involved, they should be given the technological resources and institutional support to make that happen.
The key, she says, is to recognize that the current workplace was designed by and for men. While technology can be an important enabler for working women, it needs to be accompanied by cultural changes in order to create environments where women can thrive on their own terms. “So many women have to pretend they aren’t women at work, and they end up leaving because they’re trying to conform to workplaces that were never set up for women in the first place,” she says.
As the boss of her own company, Zaleski has been able to design her second maternity leave according to her own needs. She says she’s modeling her time off on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s parental leave — taking a break from the office and focusing on her new baby, but not disengaging or walking away from her leadership responsibilities.
“This time around I’m working from home. I’m staying engaged with my team, and they’re sending me stuff to look at,” she says. “I’m so much happier than last time.”