Empowering Women through Jobs in the Digital Economy

October 20, 2015


The digital economy can provide women with a means of earning a living, even if they are otherwise excluded from the traditional labor markets. This is especially true for those in the developing world, where cultural bias, mobility restrictions, security, and time limitations often prevent women from taking their rightful place in the workforce. The key benefit of the digital economy is that it allows and encourages remote working, where gender may not matter as much as in the physical economy. It opens up a world of opportunities for women in poor countries.

And yet the barriers to taking part in the digital economy can often be as difficult to surmount as those that prevent women from engaging in the traditional economy. These restrictions and constraints can prevent women from taking advantage of the ‘digital dividend’. 

One key challenge is unequal access to the internet.  According to Mavis Ampah, Lead ICT Policy Specialist, Transport ICT GP at the World Bank, most of the focus in the last decade has been on increasing developing countries’ connectivity to the digital world. This has seen rapid improvement, especially in the area of mobile penetration. But when it comes to internet access there is still a stark gap. In the upcoming WDR report on the digital economy, it will be reported that only 18% of African men have access to the internet. For women, the connectivity gap is even wider: only 12% of African women have access to the internet.

Another obstacle is getting women educated about the digital world. Andela is one company that has systematically designed a business model to help women overcome these hurdles to participation. Its business model centers on placing remote software developers with Fortune 500 companies and start-ups. But it also specifically aims to train up female developers in Africa.

According to its Co-Founder and COO, Christina Sass, “the training available is woefully inadequate compared to the opportunities that are out there.” Sass further notes that in some computer science university programs in Africa, zero time is spent actually coding, a critical skill in the sector. To address this, Andela has developed a rigorous training program for these women, including specific software development training and soft skills training

This lack of skills training is a common barrier to entry for women into the IT sector all over the developing world. “Many countries have outdated education systems which give no practical skills, so we need to find initiatives that are online and agile,” says Stela Mocan, Lead IT Officer, Business Solutions Information and Technology Solutions at the World Bank Group. Mocan previously helped the Government of Moldova put together a program to draw more women into the IT sector.

The resulting GirlsGoIT program combines training in basic coding as well as critical thinking and problem solving. After initial success in Moldova, especially targeting rural women, it is now regionalizing and expanding into Ukraine, Turkey and Romania

" The main way to get more women onto these sites is to give them more education, and the only way to reach women in rural areas is through online courses "

Ferdinand Kjærulff

Founder and CEO of CodersTrust

While better training enables women to get jobs in IT, it can be expensive. One private sector company that has come up with an innovative solution to this is CodersTrust. This firm provides microfinance and training for female IT workers in Bangladesh. It then helps them pitch for and win work on the rapidly growing online freelance portals such as Elance and Upwork. “The main way to get more women onto these sites is to give them more education, and the only way to reach women in rural areas is through online courses,” says Ferdinand Kjærulff, the founder and CEO of CodersTrust. A former Captain in the Danish army, he pioneered a recovery project in Iraq bringing internet and e-learning to the citizens of the region in which he was stationed. This project led to CodersTrust.

But perhaps the biggest hindrance comes from a dearth of role models. If young women and their families do not see other women in these roles, it is difficult for them to even contemplate applying for the training courses. As part of its process, Andela requires the women it trains and places with employers to give back by being a mentor to potential new applicants.

This problem is particularly acute in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where conflict has exacerbated traditional cultural barriers to women in the work place. Yet even there, women are finding ways to enter the digital work place. Jana El-Horr is a social development specialist at the World Bank and is working on two pilots empowering women by including them in the digital economy in both countries.

According to El-Horr, the key to her program is the inclusion of the whole community and letting families know about the opportunities. In this way, she says, they can change the view that the only jobs that women can have are as teachers or nurses.  Ironically, working in the digital space in conflict-affected countries can be much safer than working in more traditional jobs. Thus far, the program has enrolled 75 women in one of the pilots, and has achieved a 90% retention rate and a 60% employment rate for those who have taken part. It is now being scaled up to include up to 1,000 women.

What these programs ultimately achieve, through participation in the digital economy, is female empowerment. The nature of the digital economy brings huge opportunities for participation, more so in some cases than in the traditional economy. The barriers to getting women involved are different to those barriers that prevent women from participating more fully in the traditional economy. But as these programs are finding out, these barriers are not insurmountable.