Digitization and gender equality – new opportunities or old problems repackaged?

Does digitization aid gender equality or simply provide new platforms for old problems?

Digitalization is one of the defining processes of our time and as such touches all areas of life. It is often perceived as a helper, a simplifier, and an opportunity to improve the status quo - whether in education, administration, for companies, or for private individuals. But how far does the potential for change (and improvement) of digitalization extend? Can it also have a positive effect in the social sphere? Or is it just the reason why couples tied to their smartphones sit silently opposite each other in a café? Can it open up new opportunities for participation and advancement for currently less privileged groups?


Women make up just under half of the world's population. Gender equality is a universal human right and part of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet the reality of life for many women and other marginalized groups is still very different today - they are often denied education, healthcare and participation in society. Women are less likely than men to own land, more likely to work in the low-wage sector, and more likely to experience poverty. Globally, the situation is not equally problematic everywhere, and it is also clear that progress is already being made. Nevertheless, we must not rest on our achievements to date (in industrialized nations and in Germany as well), because there is still a need for action.

In Germany, equality before the law has been achieved. Actual equality in everyday life is still a work-in-progress: for example, the gender pay gap is only slowly beginning to close, the proportion of women in top management positions in the private sector has barely risen since 2008, and only one-third of business start-ups in Germany are attributable to women (a detailed report on equality in Germany here).

As is so often the case, digitalization is the beacon of hope for some. Some think the digital revolution could also contribute to a different kind of change and accelerate the creation of actual equality. But is that just wishful thinking? Or does digitalization actually offer opportunities for equality?



How can digitalization contribute to equality?


In a sense, digitalization opens up a secondary world alongside the analog life. This makes it possible to circumvent or overcome traditional cultural and spatial restrictions. For example, the Internet offers new opportunities for acquiring knowledge and access to education. Mobile work frees people from spatial restrictions and makes many professions more accessible. Not only, but also, women benefit from this.

Digitalization will eliminate many jobs that involve routine work. However, as we have already described in this blog article, new jobs will also be created in the process. Sometimes there is a view that women will have a better chance of gaining a foothold and being successful in these jobs because of their better social skills on average. This stereotype may or may not be true, but it is clear that social skills, creativity and adaptability will become more important and play an even greater role in the future. Thus, skills formerly dismissed as 'typically female' are gaining greater importance.

However, the advantage that women (supposedly) enjoy through social skills will not be enough anyway. After all, in addition to soft skills, increasingly specific technical knowledge and skills are indispensable in a highly complex, ever more differentiated world. Being a good communicator is not enough - social skills must be complemented by technical and digital ones. The importance of digital competence cannot be overestimated. A study by management consultants Accenture concluded that, among other factors, the effective use of digital technologies helped women achieve higher levels of education. In this way, digitalization could be beneficial to equality.


Nor should the value of new networking opportunities be underestimated. Without question, the Internet is not always a friendly place. But there is just as little doubt that it opens up unprecedented communication opportunities. In concrete terms, this also means that it offers spaces for exchange between people who would otherwise never have come into contact. This not only helps the individual(s) feel less alone with hurdles that may be perceived as peripheral. It enables small networks of supporters to offer help and belonging, as well as the emergence and organization of larger movements.


Social skills, creativity and adaptivity will continue to gain importance and play an even greater role in the future. Thus, skills formerly dismissed as "typically female" are gaining in importance.

What is holding women back from realizing the potential of digitalization for themselves?


The considerations described so far sound like many good opportunities. The problem is that these considerations are theoretical in nature. For example, the assumption that women have better social skills is a stereotype that by no means applies to everyone. And even if it were, this alone would be far from reliable - after all, there are also men who can be inspiring in this area. In this respect, it is wishful thinking. Especially since (as described) this strength is worth little without corresponding hard skills.

Furthermore, the fact remains that existing 'analog' hurdles in the digital sphere have not simply disappeared. While there are new opportunities to overcome them - there are also new challenges (such as gender-based digital violence, which affects women more often). As a result, women may not be able to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by digitalization.

Existing restrictions still make it harder for women around the world to access digital devices. In addition to financial aspects, digital literacy is also a problem - because if you have no understanding of technology at all, you also don't understand what benefits it could bring you and why it would be worthwhile to purchase a smartphone, for example. People who are not familiar with something tend not to want to deal with it, and those who do not want to deal with something generally avoid considering its advantages.

Anyone who now thinks that this is the problem of the developing countries alone is mistaken. Even in the most developed G20 countries, women are less digitally literate than men on average. School education in this area would have to be improved in order to meet the demands of modern life. Lack of digital skills development is complemented by a social climate in which men are still seen as more interested and tech-savvy. Technology affinity is a male trait in most people's understanding (interestingly, household technology is often excluded from this). Girls, on the other hand, are often considered to be more linguistically and musically inclined or - precisely - more socially adept. (Basically, exactly this prejudice is part of the reason why girls think they are less likely to succeed in technical fields and tend to develop less interest). Many girls are taught from an early age that technology (and to some extent science) is not their thing, and the gender gap that results from a lack of exposure to certain topics carries over into adult life. (Incidentally, it's not just women who suffer from this stereotyping - it can also make it more difficult for men to make their way, for example in traditionally female-dominated professions).

But isn't there a possibility here that these differences are natural differences between the sexes? This can no more be said with certainty than it can be ruled out with certainty. What is certain, however, is that despite improvements in recent years and decades, the circumstances for men and women are still different. And as long as this is the case, (supposed?) gender differences in interests and abilities should not be understood as natural, but only products of those very different circumstances.


So far, only one-third of the companies in Germany were founded by women. In the digital industry, this also means that the digital world is thought of and shaped primarily by men.

Mobile work - opportunity and risk


Another example of the ambivalent relationship between digitalization and equality is mobile working. As already mentioned, mobile work makes employees location-independent, which improves access to highly qualified (and well-paid) work. In principle, this is a good and correct development, even when viewed in isolation from the idea of equality. However, this is only one side of the coin. In fact, home office work is both an opportunity and a risk. The fact is that women who work from home continue to take on the majority of family care work. The double burden of family and career often persists, it just becomes more concentrated in the home. Women are then more likely to use the additional time for household and care work than men - the traditional division of labor is even reinforced. In fact, working from home does not bring about a convergence of the circumstances under which men and women participate in the workforce. Only when both take on roughly the same share of care work do both also have the same opportunities for professional realization.


Biased IT: How objective are algorithms?


Algorithms are being used more and more frequently because they have a good reputation for possessing the rationality and impartiality that humans themselves would like to have. So when it comes to matters such as credit allocation or human resources, relying on 'neutral' algorithms instead of leaving this work to prejudice-prone humans seems like a good idea. After all, these decisions can have a not inconsiderable impact on a person's life.

But as with all good things, there is a catch. Neutrality and freedom from bias are not inherent properties of algorithms. Their calculations may be rational and free of bias, but the basic assumptions on which these calculations are based are not necessarily so.

Algorithms are therefore only ever as neutral as their programmers, and AI only as non-discriminatory as the data with which they are trained. If training data depict stereotypes and discriminatory structures, their outcome will replicate them. But is this verified, let alone assuredly ruled out? No. Often, the functioning of algorithms is not fully known to their users, so that they are trusted too lightly. But even algorithms are far from immune from containing biases (albeit not malicious ones) against certain groups. These include women as well as all other minority groups.

Algorithms therefore offer an opportunity for objectivity and freedom from discrimination - but whether, when and how this can materialize is uncertain.


Digitization - equal opportunity enabler or promoter of the status quo?


A number of aspects of digitalization speak for its equality-promoting effect. On the other hand, old problems could manifest themselves in merely different ways or new problems could arise. There are good reasons to believe in both: that digitalization will reinforce trends that already exist (because the same people who live and act in the analog world also do so in the digital one), or that new technical possibilities will promote transformation processes. Each development seems possible, but not all are desirable.

Only time will tell what effects digitalization will have on individuals and society - whether in terms of equality or other issues. The only thing that is clear is that digitalization itself is a technical process that knows no direction in terms of social implications. Thus, digitalization has no inherent goal in terms of equality either. Which path its developments will take, what consequences they will have for people, who will lose or win (or whether there need be any losers at all) are not questions whose answers one has to wait for and accept with a worried frown. To be sure, there is certainly something that is most likely to happen if you let things take their course. But no one says you have to wait for it. The better option would be to steer the process in the desired direction from the outset.


Digitization itself is a technical process that knows no direction in terms of social implications. The best option would therefore be to steer the process in the desired direction from the outset.

What actions can be taken?


Good intentions are not sufficient for this. Measures are needed that do justice to the diversity and complexity of (possible) barriers. The fundamental criterion for everyone to participate in digital life is, of course, universal, affordable broadband Internet access. There is a great imbalance here globally, and Germany also has some catching up to do.

Women should be supported more actively by combining the social competence they are said to have with professional and digital competence. Digital competence is a life task that should start at home and during school education. However, in order not to be left behind by increasingly rapid technical innovations in the course of life, general technical affinity would have to be promoted here. Of course, not everyone has a strong intrinsic motivation to deal with technology, but where there is interest, it should not be thwarted. The goal should be to get girls interested in STEM subjects right from the start, and to break down gender stereotypes that girls excel in languages and arts subjects, and that science and math are more boys' things. Encouraging interest in STEM subjects in girls as early as school age could then in turn encourage young women to pursue their tertiary education in STEM fields to qualify for well-paid and sustainable careers.

The theoretical possibility of setting up an online business from anywhere in the world or offering digital services, for example, is often cited as a pro-argument for promoting equality through digitalization. The approach may not be wrong, but leaving it at that is a highly simplistic way of looking at things. After all, a mobile device and Internet access, while basic, are not enough to build an online business. On the one hand, you need a skillset that you can get paid for, and on the other hand, the need for certain entrepreneurial skills should not be underestimated. Because where many see an opportunity for themselves, many will want to seize it, and to prevail against competition in order to be successful in the long term is difficult. Last but not least, becoming self-employed is also a financial gamble and often requires start-up capital.


To address these issues, financial support should be made more easily available, for one thing. In addition, there are approaches for mentorship programs and online platforms to promote web-based entrepreneurship for women. In contrast to snowball systems that lure women with the desire for professional self-employment and ruin them financially, this is intended to impart knowledge and skills that aspiring female entrepreneurs will need in a serious manner. Success is not guaranteed in this way, of course, but that is true for all young entrepreneurs. The goal is to create better conditions.

The German government has also set itself the goal of actively shaping digitalization. Examples of measures that should 'remain in view' from the federal government's perspective are (as already mentioned) the dismantling of stereotypes and the teaching of a diversity of gender education, STEM promotion of girls and women, and ongoing teaching of digital skills. The risks of AI are also an issue, which is why its non-discriminatory use is also on the list. In terms of finance, access to startup capital should be equal and funding to promote digitalization should be distributed in a gender-neutral way. (For more on the findings and possible actions for equality in the digital space, see the third equality report).




Digitalization certainly offers opportunities for advancing real gender equality. But this effect is not self-fulfilling: it needs to be consciously worked toward. Promoting digitalization and hoping that women's 'empowerment' will happen on its own does not work. Digitalization is a useful tool and offers opportunities for positive change, yes. But these are not themselves the end of the solution; they need to be harnessed. What is needed is conscious and purposeful action - equality is not a self-runner - not even with digitalization.


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