Boosting gender equality through innovation and digitalization  

Credit: Cecilia Castelli for TheGreats.co

In 2022 living solely offline seems like something from a bygone era. Connectivity and technology have indubitably become integral parts of most people’s daily lives. As governments around the globe imposed lockdowns and movement restrictions to curb COVID-19 infections, businesses and organizations have more swiftly than ever adapted to reinvent themselves and survive. To do so, technology was fundamental.  

Beyond the heavy toll on the global economy, public health and policymaking, COVID-19 worsened social, gender and racial inequality. The progress made thus far towards closing the gender gap has been obstructed – in 2020 it was predicted it would take 99.5 years to achieve gender equality, and in 2021 this had increased by one generation to 135.6 years. 

In this critical moment, UNDP has embarked on a new Strategic Plan to accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and build a more equitable future. Strengthening gender equality enablers is at the core of these efforts – a more inclusive economic system, a more equal social contract and changing gender norms.  

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there are some worrying signs of regression – the gender gap in access to technology and digital inclusion is widening, in contrast with the global trend. At first glance, digitalization appears to be democratic, yet when we look closer technologies and the internet are not accessible to all people, and gendered differences in digital access, participation in the digital economy, and visibility in data are marked. Across Europe and Central Asia more than 60 million women have no access to mobile internet and so are more likely than men to miss out on learning and economic opportunities. 

Credit: Harnessing ICTs for gender equality in Europe and Central Asia, UNDP Report

Structural and economic issues faced by women is a primary barrier to accessing technological tools and improving digital literacy. As a result of the pandemic, women are more at risk of losing their jobs as they are more likely to be working in the service sector. In addition, girls and women are often limited by domestic chores and unpaid work responsibilities, much of which fall along gendered lines. Finally being less likely to have advanced ICT skills means that women also face more difficulties adapting to the changing circumstances. This obstructs their journey to pursuing online learning or work from home, which has become the mainstay of the “new normal.”  

Today’s digital transformation opens avenues for women’s economic and social empowerment and can be used to boost gender equality if we are strategic about it. Digitalization potentially supports women in myriad of ways – from earning income and growing employment and networking prospects to accessing knowledge and information. Thus, closing the digital gender gap is an ever more urgent priority. Many essential goods and services are now accessible online; and digital skills are required in people’s businesses and daily lives. Countries that had already set out on a digital transformation path, e.g. by digitizing their public employment services, have responded more promptly and efficiently to COVID- 19 challenges that we continue to face.  

Investing in digitalization and promoting digital inclusion is crucial to provide remote support and access to services to professionals and customers. Powered by UNDP’s Innovation Team in Europe and Central Asia, and facilitated by leading international experts in the field of business acceleration and impact investment, the first round of BOOST, a regional acceleration program, scouted, supported and helped scale 37 innovations in the areas of digitalization, low-touch economy, and wellbeing. An excellent example is DokTok, accelerating the transition to remote working for health professionals and advancing the use of independent-work platforms. Such flexible telework forms undoubtedly have a positive impact, particularly for women workers and entrepreneurs, who could benefit from these platforms’ flexibility and reach.   

As demonstrated by BOOST’s first cohort, technology can be a vector for economic growth and societal progress, including gender equality. Now, how can we create an enabling ecosystem of innovators to boost women’s digital access, participation in the digital economy, and visibility in data? With the generous support from Koç Holding and the Slovak Ministry of Finance, UNDP launched BOOST: Women Innovators to address these challenges. The program aims to support women innovators in the start-up, nonprofit and academic ecosystems driving change across a variety of fields, while at the same time accelerate innovations that give visibility to women in data, promote women’s digital access and use, and propel more women to join the digital economy and STEM. 

Through an intense, 16-week virtual acceleration bootcamp, BOOST will connect women-led startups and businesses, non-profits and academic institutions from across the region leading gender equality or tech-driven innovations with financing, resources, training and mentorship. BOOST, uniquely rooted in systems thinking, seeks to generate a coherent portfolio of innovations, make sense of the system in which they act, reveal inherent yet unseen interconnections, and generate actionable intelligence to accelerate system transformation. 

Aren’t there enough business and CSO acceleration programs for women out there already? Absolutely not. Firstly, women’s entrepreneurial opportunities in the region remain scarce – only 16% of founders in the ICT sector are women in South Caucasus and Western CIS. What’s more, data shows that even when women are tech leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs, they receive much less investments than men. Globally, only 2.3% of venture capital funds went to women startups in 2020. At the same time, we see from studies that women-led businesses have higher revenues, while greater gender equality in teams leads to higher innovation. Women entrepreneurs and women pioneering cutting-edge technologies could also further inspire and pave the way for other girls and women throughout the region to fulfil their potential, pursue education in STEM-fields, and support informal businesses to shift to the formal sector and expand.   

Credit: BCG

UNDP Europe and Central Asia works with partners such as STEM4ALL to build a gender-responsive digital ecosystem through several streams, bringing together different actors to create enabling ecosystems, learn and accelerate the closing of the gender gap. BOOST Vol. 2 supports these efforts, innovating with women for women, with the firm belief that bridging the gender digital divide while supporting tech innovation is essential for building resilient and inclusive realities

Join BOOST: Women Innovators – apply before March 15 (deadline extended)! 

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