Gender-based digital divide risky

A New Delhi-based writer, Nilanjana Bhowmick, who actually described herself as a “feminist writer”, published an interesting opinion piece on March 8 to commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day.

Here are some excerpts: “Brands wanting to ‘appreciate’ women are offering discounts on clothes and makeup, and celebrities are urging women to use the day to pamper themselves. In India, International Women’s Day has been captured by commerce”. Bhowmick also expressed the view that “International Women’s Day is too often dumbed down into a mere marketing opportunity that capitalises feminism”.

The headline of the piece itself was as captivating as the full content: “We don’t need discount vouchers for International Women’s Day. We need equal rights”.
So what is it all about? Well, International Women’s Day is officially described as “a global holiday celebrated annually on March 8 as a focal point in the women’s rights movement, bringing attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence and abuse against women”. This year’s theme, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,” according to the promoters, “highlights the role of innovative technology in promoting gender equality and meeting the health and developmental needs of women and girls”.

The fact is, if you have been an ardent reader of this column over the years, you would have noticed that in March every year, I follow the International Women’s Day activities with keen interest, and write a piece or two about events organised to commemorate the day.

In the March 12, 2022 edition, for instance, I devoted this page to women empowerment. Writing under the headline: “Recollections on women empowerment”, I explained how, since it began in 1911, the International Women’s Day had always brought about moments of reflection on the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women globally”

The 2022 theme was “Choose to Challenge”, and with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting global social and economic activities, understandably, the year’s event was marked by several virtual programmes.
Again, to mark the International Women’s Day in 2021, I focused on achievements by women to write about two women, and how they had worked hard to challenge the status quo.
Here is one, as l presented her in that piece: “Let me now expose you to some of the wonderful literature on the achievements of some great women. I hope you are aware of the harmful effects of DDT, right? Well, Rachel Carlson, a biologist, was the first to study the harmful effects of DDT in the early 1960s. Significantly, she chose to challenge the status quo, as it wasn’t easy for her at the time to make known her study and defend her position. She came up against fierce attacks from the chemical industry lobby groups. She resisted and finally succeeded in promoting her ideals. Today, she can be considered as one of the founders of the modern environmental movement”. This was my expression in the March 13, 2021 edition.

My view then, which hasn’t changed in any way, though, was that “in all, the role of women in balancing economic growth cannot be overemphasised. There is a great store of literature on how, at the micro level, women have helped develop informal sector activities to supplement efforts at the formal level. The small ‘table top’ business activities have often proved life-changing for many; through the small susu activities, savings habit is cultivated and for generations; it has been the most valuable knowledge that our forebears bequeathed to us”.

That is why women are worth celebrating, and the reason why the International Women’s Day is of great importance. In fact, throughout history, women have birthed and nurtured human activities of all kinds, and it takes a woman to taste and enjoy life for the first time. No wonder “mother earth” is common to many cultures.

At the back of this, let me lend my support to the views of Bhowmick that celebrating women should not only be about discount vouchers but also it should be a time for reflection and promotion of the need to address the marginalising gender issues. “Gender equality is not rocket science. Neither is it a spa voucher,” Bhowmick wrote in part.

On that basis, let us take a peep into the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, and try to understand why the theme is so relevant. As stated earlier, the theme for this year is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, and l strongly identify with the spirit behind the theme.

This is why. In the March 20, 2021 edition of this column, which was a week after I had written on the International Women’s Day for that year, I explained why financial technology adoption was growing but gaps remained. The headline then was “Fintech gender gap”.

In part, this is what I wrote: “l am looking at some of the interventions needed to get us all along the path of inclusive development, because for the world to experience the much needed inclusive growth necessary for the common good, none, whatsoever, should be left behind”.

“Upon reflection, I wondered also, whether technology innovators and those promoting its adoption, were doing enough to include all social groups in design and form. I have seen some good effects of technology due to mobile services penetration. Today, some hitherto marginalised groups are able to save and invest using services offered on mobile phones through user-friendly applications. In fact, individuals, households and enterprises that could not raise small loans are now able to use basic financial services and products offered through the collaboration between finance and technology companies. All these value-added services are transforming lives in a big way”.

But, as l further explained, “In a Working Paper shared by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) on March 11, [2021], Sharon Chen, Sebastian Doerr, Jon Frost, Leonardo Gambacorta and Hyun Song Shin, the authors, explained that there exist a ‘large fintech gender gap’, even as technology is helping to improve financial exclusion. Drawing on a survey of over 27,000 adults from 28 major economies to ‘investigate gender differences in the adoption of new financial technology’, the authors posited that ‘the gap is present in almost every country in our sample. It is roughly the same size for products provided by fintech [financial technology] entrants and those offered by traditional financial institutions.

The econometric analysis reveals that country characteristics and individual-level controls explain about a third of the gap”. According to the report, while 29 per cent of men use fintech products and services, only 21 per cent of women do.

Despite the impressive technological developments and adoption, gaps still remain. As I also explained in the July 24, 2021 edition, technological growth, according to some experts, could actually be driving up inequality of some sort, as the digital divide was so evident at the peak of the pandemic; some businesses were able to adopt technology to deal with supply chain challenges during the lockdown periods, whereas others could not manage their processes due to challenges with technology adoption.

To achieve inclusive growth, we must innovate the right technology that could further promote gender equality. That way, there would be effective technology adoption and diffusion to achieve accelerated economic growth.

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