Issues and Challenges

DigitALL: Making Technology Gender Inclusive

Under the theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,” the United Nations observance of International Women’s Day 2023 will highlight the need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education.

During the last few decades, the world has seen a rapid change in almost all spheres of life. The common thread in all these changes is technology, wherein technological advancements are constantly shaping the future. While growth and innovation in technology are necessary as it promises connectivity and greater good for all, its availability across the gender spectrum, especially to women and young girls is generally overlooked putting women in regressive roles. The trend of women’s exclusion from digital spaces is visible in both the developed and the developing world, but the latter has been witnessing far greater repercussions as the non-uniform distribution of technology has resulted in a widened gender gap, generating inequalities, resulting in slower economic growth. This pattern is quite visible in the Pakistani context as well where multiple socioeconomic and cultural factors have been involved in excluding women from digital spaces, costing the country a massive blow in the economic realm. Nevertheless, it is imperative to note that women are the backbone of Pakistan and without making technology accessible to all women, Pakistan will not be able to integrate into the global economy to the fullest. 
Moreover, the lack of economic resources, which results in the inaccessibility of technological tools is something that needs to be addressed on a priority basis. This is possible only when the core issues like why women are economically dependent on their male counterparts and what impact this economic dependence has on them are answered. The problem lies in the overall structure of our society, which has assigned the responsibility of earning a livelihood to men, while women are given the job of looking after their households. This division of labor apparently looks fine, but it generates economic inequalities, as the responsibility assigned to men comes with monetary incentives, but women’s familial job does not come with such promises. This not only affects the national economy but also puts women a degree below their male counterparts because their efforts do not get due recognition in the society at large. This makes women economically dependent on men for their basic needs, owing to which women at large are unable to access basic technology like mobile phones or the internet. This results in their limited digital exposure that translates into less or minimum participation in the latest digital ventures that have the potential of uplifting their economic status. One can, therefore, say that the digital gender gap has broadened the economic inequalities and vice versa, putting women at a disadvantage.
To understand the link between growth, technology, and gender equality, one needs to dwell on questions like: What are the impacts of the digital gender gap that are broadening socioeconomic and political inequalities in Pakistan? How does technological accessibility aid in reducing the gender gap? And if this gap is bridged, then how will it ensure a boost in the national economy? Although these questions appear to be talking about digitalization and women, a closer look suggests that these questions are deeply rooted in our socioeconomic realities and when addressed, they have the potential to help formulate a working policy for the integration of women in digital markets. 
Today, almost every work, whether it is small-scale services provision or large-scale industrial setup, has been shifted to online platforms primarily because the internet is perceived to be within the reach of the general masses. This shift from the real to the virtual world has also brought forth the idea of working from the ease of home, which seems a feasible option to a lot of people, including women. However, this calls into question the fact that whether basic technology like mobile phones, the internet and computers are available to all women or not. Furthermore, women’s lack of access to the latest technology would hinder the acquisition of the essential digital skills that are the prerequisites for digital spaces and virtual engagement. This would eventually close the doors of opportunities for women as their lack of digital skills would hamper their career prospects in various fields of science, technology, medicine, etc. Therefore, the procurement of the latest technology is the basic requirement for women to work effectively in the current global age, but women in Pakistan are lacking greatly in this domain. The 2018-19 Pakistan Social and Living Standard Survey shows eye-opening statistics wherein 13% of women have accessed the internet once in three months while only 6% had access to a computer and laptop. On the other hand, just 26% of females above the age of 10 own mobile phones.  
Pakistan is a diverse and multiethnic country where traditions and customs play a defining role in shaping the overall attitudes of the people. Although, these traditional values and cultural norms are integral to the society, the conscious and unconscious efforts of society to uphold these norms generate certain stereotypes, amongst which gender stereotypes are quite prevalent. These stereotypes directly influence societal attitudes towards women, whose active involvement in the technological realm is not appreciated in many parts of the country. Hence, the fact that women are not considered tech-savvy, and the presumption that fields like teaching and medicine are suitable for women result in an educational setup where girls are conditioned to adopt society’s approved “feminine” fields.
Governments all around the globe have shifted their welfare and public service delivery projects online. In Pakistan too, such initiatives have been taken up by the government, however, there exist huge gender disparities that limit the digital presence and efficiency of the government. For instance, due to societal constraints and a lack of technological resources, women are unable to reach out to governmental platforms on the internet. The renewal of a national identity card is one such example, where a majority of women are either not literate enough to fill out their credentials on the official website of National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) or they simply do not have the access to technology that bridges them with NADRA’s online portal. Similarly, banks in Pakistan have started online banking systems to restructure and reform banking processes. One of the reasons to take this step was to provide pensioners, especially elderly people, and women from remote areas, with easily accessible financial platforms. However, socioeconomic constraints like the unavailability of technological avenues, cultural stigmas, and low purchasing power of women in remote areas are simultaneously at play limiting women’s participation in digital arenas.  
The debate regarding e-voting is taking center stage and Pakistani government is debating whether e-voting is a plausible solution for getting maximum public mandate or not. Relevant authorities have, however, overlooked gender disparity vis-à-vis technology and communication means. As compared to men, more than half of the global female population has limited access to basic technology like smartphones and the internet, which denotes that their voices in politics remains unheard. For instance, when comparing the male vs female representation in political theatre, one concludes that the majority of women, especially from far-flung areas, are not even registered as voters in official documents. Consequently, it won’t be wrong to say that technology is playing a decisive part in our collective and individual lives.
Technological influence on society moves beyond the apparent or superficial attitudes and seeps deep into the structural and foundational blocks of the society. The economic model and economic relations of any society are structural blocks that shape our interactions and point of view. Technology has played a crucial role in mitigating such challenges, as it has provided people with opportunities to improve their financial conditions. For instance, initiatives like Careem and Uber have infused technology with driving skills and have proved to be quite a successful model in countries like Pakistan. While men have utilized this initiative to the fullest, unfortunately, women in Pakistan have still not taken up this platform primarily due to security concerns and a lack of economic and technological resources. Hence, one can say that the digital gender gap has broadened the socioeconomic and political inequalities. 
Modern-day technology has brought forth modern solutions to our not-so-modern problems, making it necessary for everyone to access technology. It has the potential to provide equal opportunities to women and can ensure transparency in political processes. Moreover, technologically literate women have the potential to engage themselves in freelancing and can even kick-start their own business ventures. For instance, websites like Fiverr and Upwork provide freelance gigs to individuals based on their skills and not on their gender, ensuring a competing environment for both men and women. Women like Mahlaqa Shaukat, have merged technology with an idea and brought forth an amazing fitness application AimFit, which aims at helping women in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and provides them with live workouts. Similarly, an exceptionally brilliant health-tech venture titled Sehat Kahani was launched by Dr Sara Saeed and Dr Iffat Zafar for two primary reasons: first, to bring those female doctors back into the workforce who dropped out due to familial obligations, and  second, to reach out to the women in remote areas and provide them with affordable healthcare services. Likewise, educational business startups like Out-Class by Aiman Bashir and TeeSquare by Zainab Hameed and Sadia Junaid have been launched with focus to integrate both teenage students as well as young children of Montessori level into digital education. These are just a few examples, which tell that Pakistani women possess the necessary potential and innovative ideas that can ensure their success. Hence, these exemplary women have proved that when women are given the right exposure and technological tools, they can materialize their out-of-the-box ideas without disturbing the sociocultural fabric of the society. 
The global proliferation of technology has provided users and governments with tools and platforms that can help them in bringing innovative solutions to various problems that society faces. However, the problem arises due to the unequal distribution of technology amongst the individuals present at the societal peripheries amongst, which women constitute a major portion of. Moreover, it is imperative to equip women with the latest technological tools in societies like Pakistan. This will not only liberate women economically but will also give a massive boost to the economic growth of the country. Hence in a nutshell, the government needs to make conscious efforts to integrate the concept of DigitALL to streamline women’s efforts and to acknowledge their potential. Moreover, it will help Pakistani women belonging to low socioeconomic and multiethnic backgrounds in voicing their concerns, which would in turn help the policymakers to devise pro-women policies. HH

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