From social media and e-commerce to artificial intelligence, technology is transforming how we work, communicate and live our lives. Yet as technology races ahead, women and girls – especially those from developing countries and vulnerable communities in Asia and the Pacific - continue to be left behind.
Women are under-represented in the tech industry. Despite making up one-third of the workforce in the world’s 20 largest technology companies, women hold only one in four leadership positions. Similarly at the foundation level, girls and women make up just one-third of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics globally. Unconscious gender bias in the design and development of new digital products and services is further perpetuating gender inequality.
Yet, many women are also taking the lead in harnessing technology to address these inequalities and gender-based violence in the region. Rhea See is one of three women who run She Loves Tech, the world’s largest startup competition for women and technology, seeking out and accelerating the best entrepreneurs and technology for transformative impact.
“At She Loves Tech, we have always seen a lot of very innovative women tech entrepreneurs who are building solutions to some of our greatest challenges. Last year we had entries exploring things like self-healing concrete, renewable energy out of wastewater and voice AI dealing with emotion,” says Rhea.
“I remember a few years ago, a start-up founder shared anecdotes of approaching investors for her technology to deal with breast cancer but was told that breast cancer is a niche area. The reality is half of the world’s population have a high chance of getting breast cancer, so how is that a niche?”
Centuries of patriarchy, discrimination and harmful stereotypes have created a huge digital gender divide. Across Asia and the Pacific, only 54 per cent of women have digital access. Women and girls are less likely than men and boys to use the Internet or own a smartphone. Gender-based violence, both offline and increasingly online these days, are additional barriers.
Kirthi Jayakumar, who is part of the 30 for 2030 Network, runs the Gender Security Project and CRSV Observatory which provides research, reportage and documentation related to women, peace and security. She previously coded an app for survivors of gender-based violence called Saahas.
“The biggest barrier to technology and innovation is access. When women and girls are not able to access spaces that concern them, affect their lives and is also used to target them, then we are sidelining a majority of voices in defining that space and making it safe for them. We must also dismantle any barriers that exist in the form of discrimination and violence when they are in that space to really allow them the freedom to create, innovate and upskill themselves and the system in itself,” says Kirthi.
Rhea and Kirthi’s sentiments on the challenges and opportunities for girls and women in this technology-driven world were echoed earlier this year at both the Asia-Pacific Regional Consultation and the Commission on the Status of Women. Both sessions shared key recommendations and wide-ranging efforts to close the digital gender gap, encourage STEM education and access, as well as foster safe digital environments. By embracing inclusivity and the full participation of women and girls in technology, we can pave the way for a more equitable future for all.