Opinion: 4 ways digital platforms can expand economic opportunity for women

Newly released case studies provide practical guidance to companies that want to support gender equality in the platform economy and beyond. Photo by: Anna Shvets from Pexels

In less than a decade, the digital economy will account for 25% of the world’s gross domestic product. Economic opportunities are increasingly mediated by online platforms; in 2018, the market value of just the largest global platforms — such as Apple, Google, and Alibaba — was more than $7 trillion.

However, women face substantial limitations, both in accessing digital tools and platforms and in leveraging them to expand economic opportunities. These limitations are increasing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic as women shoulder more child care, experience a higher incidence of gender-based violence, and face reduced labor-force participation. This not only leaves women out of the industries of the future but also prevents technology companies from reaching a substantial portion of the market.

To explore the intersection between gender and the platform economy, the International Finance Corporation — a member of the World Bank Group — and the European Commission partnered to launch Digital2Equal in 2018. The initiative brings together 17 leading technology companies operating across the online marketplace. From South African recruitment app Giraffe to global tech giant Google, these 17 companies are working to boost opportunities for women in emerging markets.

Opinion: Tech companies can support women in the COVID-19 response, too

The gender data needed to fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on women is incomplete and underutilized. Three experts in feminist research offer their take on where tech companies can step in.

Over the course of the initiative, participating companies expanded opportunities for women by making measurable and time-bound commitments to close their gender gaps in ways that, as IFC’s research also indicates, drive progress toward gender equality and business results.

Digital2Equal members also exchanged knowledge on how to put commitments into action and conducted research on women and the digital economy. And now, newly released case studies capture insights and key examples, providing practical guidance to companies that want to support gender equality in the platform economy and beyond.

1. Analyzing sex-disaggregated data

Sex-disaggregated data for women and men is key to analyzing and understanding the needs and preferences of women users. However, disaggregating data often means grappling with technical challenges, inconsistent definitions, and privacy and security concerns.

Digital2Equal members showed that gathering gender data can both inform their strategies and provide valuable insights into how they can increase women’s participation in the economy. Brazil’s online marketplace Elo7 found that 80% of its vendors were women and thus developed training to help women entrepreneurs — many first-time business owners — grow their digital stores. In South Africa, Giraffe used company data to highlight the widening gender pay gaps for low-income professions across the country.

2. Designing products and services tailored to women

The largest digital platforms reach billions of global users. Designing products and services that serve providers and customers well can enhance opportunities for more women to engage in the digital economy.

Southeast Asian marketplace platform Lazada launched the Mompreneur program to target and grow women-owned e-commerce businesses. In India, ride-hailing platform Uber worked to increase safety and security by rolling out sexual harassment training for 75,000 drivers and by promoting freedom of movement for women passengers through its #WithinHerReach and #IgnoreNoMore campaigns.

3. Creating inclusive employment opportunities

Opinion: We cannot allow COVID-19 to reinforce the digital gender divide

Girls, women, and marginalized groups are the least likely to have access to technology. This is more alarming than ever as the coronavirus pandemic moves more aspects of life online, write the leaders of UN Women and Plan International.

Diverse and inclusive approaches to hiring and retaining talent help companies design technology that benefits everyone. Closing gender gaps is particularly crucial. The International Monetary Fund predicts women may lose more jobs to technological change because they are more likely to be in positions that will automate and less likely to be in high-growth fields, including the tech sector.

By conducting pay-gaps analysis and establishing women’s networks, Digital2Equal members are working to change gender imbalances. Take the case of Latin American e-commerce site Mercado Libre, which increased the number of women in senior leadership, or customer relationship management platform Salesforce, which invested millions of dollars in the past year to ensure there were no pay discrepancies between men and women employees.

4. Supporting community growth

The long-term success of platforms is dependent not just on existing users but also on closing the substantial gaps in connectivity and digital use that keep women from accessing the platform economy in the first place.

Members highlighted a variety of programs to support community impact. In Nigeria, e-commerce platform Jumia developed a program to empower 50,000 women and young people through online entrepreneurship. South African home-cleaning service app SweepSouth surveyed more than 1,300 domestic workers to highlight the working and living conditions in the female-dominated industry.

Right now, women are competing for access to the family computer or phone to work or connect with others. Women entrepreneurs are looking to get their businesses online, and businesswomen are seeking ways to boost their digital skills.

In this context, platforms have an even more outsized role to play in creating an inclusive digital economy. For companies wondering how to respond and thrive in that economic landscape, the case studies from Digital2Equal members show what’s possible and how to make it happen.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Charlotte Ntim

    Charlotte Ntim is a disruptive technology officer with the International Finance Corporation’s gender and economic inclusion group, where she leads the Digital2Equal peer-learning program and supports advisory engagements with clients in the tech sector. Her previous experience includes consulting on project design and supervising implementation of World Bank projects in innovation, SME finance, tourism, and clean technology.