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The Gender Gap in Innovation and How to Break the Digital Ceiling

Durva Trivedi — Former Senior Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation
Sarah Sakha — Former Project 55 Fellow
Photo courtesy of WeRobotics.

International Women’s Day is an occasion to celebrate the great progress made by women in tech innovating at the frontiers of global development. But as we take stock of how far we have come, it is important to keep in sight how far we have to go, and the systemic and digital barriers female innovators continue to face in the twenty-first century.

Although gender data gaps persist in the fields of health, education, economic and political opportunity, and security and well-being, we now have comprehensive data documenting a digital gender gap. An estimated 200 million fewer women are online compared to men. In June 2018, GSMA, which reports and publishes data about and in the interest of the mobile industry, published data on the gender inequality in mobile technology, or the primary way most of the world accesses the Internet. The report highlights a disproportionately lower rate of mobile Internet use for women in low-and-middle-income countries. Women, on average, are 26 percent less likely to use mobile Internet than men.

The digital gender gap does not exist in a vacuum.

Gender equality and innovation must advance together to solve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Disproportionately high rates of illiteracy and social and cultural gender norms contribute to gender inequality, including unequal access to technology. Sometimes, problematic norms can be embedded within the technology itself, as we’ve seen with algorithmic bias in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Clearly, there is a greater need for innovation to inspire widespread change. As the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA), a collaborative platform involving The Rockefeller Foundation along with the world’s leading development organizations, has reported gender equality and innovation must advance together to solve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). After all, gender inequality characterizes some of the world’s foremost sustainable development challenges, from poverty to climate change. Based on that observation, IDIA offers several practical recommendations for addressing the gender-innovation gap in a recently published toolkit.

Given the dearth of – and need for – diverse gender perspectives and the digital frontier’s immense opportunities for advancing the wellbeing of vulnerable populations, inviting female technologists and innovators to co-create solutions is imperative. Recruiting more diverse voices will allow for more diverse and gender-sensitive decision-making and thinking on how to lower barriers to entry for women, and how to equip women entrepreneurs with necessary tools to drive “innovation at the frontiers of development.”

Tech needs to become more accessible and welcoming to women.

Some say women are slated to take over the tech world, but the digital gender gap and remaining barriers to entrepreneurship and influence, even for STEM-educated women, suggest otherwise. When we look around, we can’t help but ask ourselves: Where are all the women? Women around the world should be online at the same rates as men. Female entrepreneurs need to be empowered and uplifted to be able to make an impact in their communities, export products and services beyond their communities, and scale digitally.

The gender gap remains, and tech needs to become more accessible and welcoming to women, both as a field and as a set of tools. From microfinance to drones, the possibilities for technology to equip women and drive social innovation are endless. And in turn, as research has shown, more female leadership will facilitate higher GDP, greater accountability, and more efficient governance.

As women, as first-and second-generation Americans originally from India and Iran, and as members of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Data and Tech team, we’re hopeful. As barriers fall, enabling women and girls to recognize their potential and role in tech innovation, we believe progress will follow.

This is the second installment on a 2-part series on gender equity in data & technology for 2019 International Women’s Day. Click here for the first piece of the series. Check out the other pieces below on our data & tech series leading up to SXSW 2019.

How Much Longer Can We Continue to Overlook the “Power of Local”?
How Do We Ensure “Data for Good” Means Data for All? Consider These Three Principles
Fusion: Innovation through Integration

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