Technology can raise the bar for women’s equality

There’s been no better time to be a woman in Asia than right now. By and large, women are safer, more prosperous and afforded more opportunities than they have ever been before. But “before” did not set the bar very high. Technology can set new standards, argues Mai Oldgard, SVP and Head of Telenor Group Sustainability:

Written: Jul 2017

Women in Asia have come a long way. In the tech sector alone are numerous women who have inspired us and changed the way we live. We can thank the women in accelerator programs and running social entrepreneur platforms for countless new products continuously rolled out across the region. We can thank women like Lim Qing Ru, who paid herself a meagre S$410 a month for two years in order to build Zopim and allow us to easily chat real-time with e-commerce sites. The explosion of cab hailing apps in this region are due in part thanks to female entrepreneur Hooi Ling Tan and GrabTaxi. We’re seeing women rising the ranks in business, technology and government from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.  There’s been no better time to be a woman in Asia than right now. By and large, women are safer, more prosperous and afforded more opportunities than they have ever been before. But “before” did not set the bar very high.

Despite accomplishments of a number of women leaders in this region, Asian women still face great challenges. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), they continue to earn 30-40 percent less than men on average. Euromonitor says Asian women could earn up to 41.2 percent less than men by 2030, higher than global estimates of 35.7 percent, and might be the only region in the world with deteriorating gender income inequality during this period.

Long gone are the excusable days that women are not part of the corporate composition. According to the World Economic Forum, more than a quarter of a billion women have entered the labor force in the past 10 years, up from 1.5 billion to 1.75 billion worldwide.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 of the United Nations 2030 global agenda specifically sets out to achieve gender equality and female empowerment. And according to ADB, a tenant to the achievement of SDG 5 is the use of Information and Communications Technology. SDG 10 – Reducing Inequalities connects in equal measure to the active inclusion of women and girls in educational, social and economic spheres. It’s an inclusion that ICT effectively drives.

Asia loses between US$16 billion to US$30 billion annually as a result of gender gaps in education and then employment. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and ADB, the region reportedly loses between US$42 billion to US$47 billion annually due to women’s limited access to employment opportunities.

Clearly, if more women were active participants of the economy, we all benefit. Eliminating gender disparity in the region would increase per capita income for all by 70% in roughly 60 years and that’s something everyone should be able to get behind.

Technology plays enormous role

Throughout my career in sustainability and working for a company with six major Asian markets that have made enormous progress in the last decade, I can attest to the inclusive power of technology. I witnessed financial services offered to millions of Pakistani women for the first time through Easypaisa, the country’s first mobile banking program. I have seen education and vital access made possible for women and children regardless of geography or gender through programs like dtac’s Best Start Program benefiting women and their newborns or Grameenphone and Jaago Foundation’s Online Schools in Bangladesh, helping connect teachers with remote communities via internet.

And it’s particularly the younger women who are using tech for the good of their gender. Malaysian filmmaker, Nora Nabila’s Young Changemakers project which uses film to give a voice to marginalized communities. Her peer, Christine Cheah, had an idea for a cancer screening application, which has since been taken commercially across Malaysia. Mehroze Munawar, a Pakistani social entrepreneur, who leverages data science to drive digital literacy programs to help Pakistani youth better access online opportunities.

A major 2016 report done by KPMG found that communications technology, including mobile phones, promotes entrepreneurial activity of women, improving business practices overcoming gender barriers. This is corroborated by two thirds of working women who reported that having a mobile means they have, or would have, greater access to business and employment opportunities (GSMA).

The internet’s ability to enable access and reduce cost barriers for such young female pioneers is essential in a world where remuneration inequalities still exist. With the right knowledge, a world of opportunity is at their fingertips—a world of female-empowered initiatives and gender neutral marketplaces—where outputs are judged solely on quality and void of predisposed discrimination.

The steepest, but surest climb is in Asia

The issue of female empowerment has never been more relevant in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. As the world’s fastest growing internet market—adding 3.8 million new users a month—the creation and growth of digital economies and women empowerment should go hand-in-hand. Digital innovation has the greatest ability to counteract income equality projections and accelerate inclusion.

Digital innovation is a virtuous cycle that feeds itself as it brings more women and disenfranchised into the fold. We have the ability to rewrite society’s gender code now. And I sleep better at night knowing whatever path my daughter may choose, science or art or anything in between, the rise of female inclusion through digital innovation around the world will provide more gender neutral opportunities and mute, if not completely extinguish, the age-old – and frankly no longer acceptable – narratives of “before”.

Note: This op-ed has been published in Singapore’s Business Times and Asia One.