As COVID-19 shook the world like a slow rolling earthquake, the walls disproportionately fell in on women, especially in the workplace. Call it a “She-Cession.” Last December alone, a net 100% of US job losses were suffered by women.
As mind-boggling as that statistic is, it is not surprising. Even before the pandemic, the inequities for women in the global workplace were widely recognized. As with so many other aspects of the pandemic, this episode has sharpened pre-existing fracture lines in everything from the quality and availability of healthcare to the digital divide.
This last issue hits particularly close to home. I eat, sleep, and breathe digital transformation. This last year has shown us all how dependent we are on our digital infrastructure, as well as the interdependence it enables. As hard as this pivot has been for people around the world, it has been hardest on women.
The Gender Gap in The Digital Divide
While the hospitality and food service industries—and the women who represent the majority of staff in those businesses—were the most obvious victims of the downturn, there was a less well-documented recession among knowledge workers and home-based businesses that rely on digital platforms.
Vast numbers of women found themselves forced to prioritize home access to the internet—themselves for work, or their children for school—and often who got to use the home’s one connected device for that purpose. This dilemma was (and is) an artifact of the disparity of digital access by gender. As the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) noted, 50% more men than women in low-income countries have digital identities, severely limiting women’s ability to transact online. While women don’t have it as bad in more developed countries, it begs the question: Why is there any distinction at all?
Of course, statistics like this encompass a lot of factors, from financial resources to societal expectations. All these—to varying degrees—explain how the current situation has come to be. But when the pandemic hit and we really, really needed our digital capabilities, women once again found themselves at the back of line.
Select All. Shift/Command
This may sound bitter. It’s not. (Women’s History Month is definitely not about that!) In fact, focusing on the gender-based digital divide is both clarifying and liberating.
There are inequities for women across the economic, political, and social spectrum… and their roots are deep. Tackling them all at once is a tall order and can easily dissipate whatever energy we might muster for the task. Identifying a single area to address with far-reaching implications for female success can both focus and inspire positive action.
That is one reason the MGI study referenced above called out “digital inclusion” as a key to women’s empowerment generally and rebounding from the setbacks of the pandemic. Digital inclusion is tied to participation in the economy, as both a consumer and a producer, a reality made painfully vivid by the pandemic and the resulting quarantines. If we want our economy to rebound—and we do!—we need to make sure that women and girls have equal access to digital tools and skills. If that means proactive investment to bridge the gap, let’s do it.
In today’s economy, digital capabilities are critical for participation (and, hopefully, success). Entrepreneurship flourishes among women, and women-owned businesses have historically been a cornerstone of economic growth worldwide. Coming out of the pandemic, attention to and investment in digital equity for women of every race, ethnicity, culture and identity will benefit everyone and pay some of the highest returns.
Most importantly, there is no excuse not to vigorously pursue digital inclusion. All those challenges women face? The social, historical, and occasionally even biological rationales put forward for gender-based inequities simply don’t hold water in the digital realm. Access to technology is the great equalizer. The more we empower one another with great technology, the fairer the economy will become. And the faster it will come back.
The Big Reboot
Every forecast for the post-COVID world says the lessons we learned about leveraging technology are going to change the world. Let’s hope so. The implications for achieving more fulfilling and productive work/life balance are huge.
While not all women are mothers, every healthy society places a special premium on motherhood. That used to mean massive trade-offs for women in their work/life balance. Technology changes all those equations. This is why digital inclusion is critical to addressing inequity across the board. Not coincidentally, the countries that have the greatest digital inclusion are projected to enjoy the greatest economic growth in the next decade.
Every institution, public and private, should do what they can to make this happen… for their own sake and the sake of the markets they serve.
The “She-Cession” triggered by the pandemic should be embraced as an opportunity to address the digital inequities that hold us all back. By empowering women with the tools needed to succeed, we assure our success as an economy and a society.
Sharon Harris is the Global Chief Marketing Officer at Jellyfish, a digital partner to some of the world’s leading brands including Uber, eBay, Disney, Spotify, Nestlé, Ford, Aviva and ASOS. Sharon is a passionate champion for diversity, equity and inclusion, and is involved in several professional mentorship organizations and is a frequent speaker on the topics of representation in tech, inclusion and allyship.