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  • Anu Madgavkar

How can digital technology speed up gender equality?

Can digital technologies consign gender inequality to history? Consider that 55 percent of new Internet businesses are founded by women in China. In Indonesia, 35 percent of revenue on the country’s largest online marketplace is earned by women-owned businesses—more than double the share in offline commerce.

China Entrepreneur Club Secretary General Maggie Cheng speaking at a breakfast meeting with Lord Livingston, Minister of State for Trade and Investment in London, 1 May 2014. Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (China Entrepreneur Club) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Across Asia Pacific, where gender inequality is high, digital technologies can give women a leg up, giving them the flexibility to earn an income as well as look after their families, and boosting economic growth in the process. The latest McKinsey Global Institute research on gender equality on Asia Pacific finds that the region’s economies could increase their collective GDP by $4.5 trillion a year by 2025—or the equivalent of adding an economy the combined size of Germany and Austria every year—by accelerating progress towards gender equality.

Tackling gender inequality is complex, difficult, and slow, but digital can help accelerate progress.

Digital technology can transform women’s lives in a myriad of ways, and quickly. It can, for instance, give many women access to a bank account for the first time. Today, an estimated 57 percent of women are financially excluded in South Asia, 54 percent in China, and 49 percent in Southeast Asia. But because the cost of providing digital finance is 80 to 90 percent lower than physical payments, MGI finds, it can be accessed more broadly.

While women account for half of the population of Asia Pacific, they contribute only 36 percent of GDP. (This doesn’t count the considerable value they create working in the home that is not formally counted in GDP measures, which we estimate—conservatively—is worth the equivalent of 15 percent of the region’s GDP). Again, digital can help bring opportunities to women via technology such as videoconferencing. In Australia, financial services company Suncorp has redesigned its contact center through “work at home hubs” that combine home work stations and working spaces in regional shopping centers.

Using digital technologies can truly transform not only women’s ability to earn money but their health and welfare. Remote delivery of healthcare is spreading. In India, NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog’s Arogya Sakhi programme uses a mobile application that assists women in becoming health entrepreneurs delivering antenatal and infancy care. Finally, digital gives women more of a voice. In Indonesia, there have been reports of improved social status, bargaining positions and influence on village policies by providing rural women training in digital media.

Some of Indonesia's leading women entrepreneurs discuss how to become business leaders in the online marketplace in 2010. Photo by U.S. State Department, CC BY 2.0

There is much more to do. More women need access to these technologies. GSMA has estimated that there are 1.1 billion unconnected women in low- and middle-income economies in Asia Pacific. Moreover, digital literacy among many women is low—lower than among men. It is vital that women are given the training in science, technology, and mathematics that will equip them for the industries that will thrive in the automation age. Finally, entrenched attitudes about women and technology also need to be tackled. Consider that in a World Wide Web Foundation survey in Jakarta, more than one-third of male respondents said that it was “their responsibility to restrict what women access on the Internet.” In India, one village in Uttar Pradesh implemented a 2,100-rupee fine for any girl using a mobile phone outside the home.

Digital cannot solve all the challenges that women face, and there are certainly some risks, but if its power to enable women to make the most of their potential is truly tapped, it can turbocharge progress towards gender equality.


Authors Anu Madgavkar, Kweilin Ellingrud and Mekala Krishnan are employees of McKinsey Global Institute.

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