Addressing gendered gaps in digital technology for a just and inclusive transition

On International Women’s Day, Tracy Kajumba reflects on the role digital technology can play in a gender-just transition to net zero, and explores ways to achieve inclusive digital technology for a just transition.

Tracy Kajumba's picture
Insight by 
Tracy Kajumba
Principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
08 March 2023
Woman holding to mobile phones

A young woman looks at their cellphone during a community meeting in Aurangabad, India (Photo: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. This is in line with the UN Women’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-67), which focuses on innovation, technological change, education, and women’s and girls’ empowerment in the digital age. 

Gender equity in a just low-carbon transition

A low-carbon transition aims to move away from carbon-intensive approaches in all sectors, including technology. And this has implications for gender equity because shifts in technologies, practices and policies impact groups differently.

Any move towards less carbon-intensive approaches will inevitably be gendered, based on who is impacted, who makes the decisions, the nature of responses and the nature of investments. 

Around the world, women continue to experience setbacks in progressing gender equality, and as the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals report notes, employment losses are rising and women are increasingly burdened with unpaid care work. IIED’s report on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic also notes that the sectors where women are more frequently employed were hardest hit by lockdowns and rapid digitalisation.

How can digital technology help?

Inclusive digital technology is important for a just transition and many emerging and developing economies have embraced digital technology for innovative, inclusive and sustainable growth (PDF).  

Digital technology has the potential to contribute to low-carbon transitions in different sectors, creating new jobs and supporting women to establish new businesses through electronic payments, mobile money platforms and so on.  

But our research on an inclusive low-carbon transition and gender-just economic outcomes indicates that gender just transition aims are often high, but implementation and evidence of outcomes does not match what is needed for transformative change in gender equality.  

This includes outcomes for digital technology’s contribution to equitable and just low-carbon transition. More work is needed to understand differentiated approaches and needs based on categories of people, regions and countries. 

The challenges

Job losses

Employment opportunities are a key consideration in planning for a low-carbon economy. Other than creating jobs, which will require new skills, the transition can exclude those without the right skills. Countries are experiencing shifts in employment: both men and women are likely to experience job losses as manual labour and service jobs give way to automation and digitalisation.

Digital divide and gendered inequalities

COVID-19 exposed the digital divide at many levels: between the global North and South, rich and poor, urban and rural, literacy levels, men and women.

A World Bank study across 137 countries identified a steady decrease in women’s enrolment rates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education from primary to tertiary education, and this needs to be addressed. This significant gap in STEM qualifications is a challenge in an increasingly digital world.

Women also often lack access to technology. There are disparities in terms of network, infrastructure, electricity, connectivity and skills between rural and urban areas, while in developing countries, regulatory inefficiencies and digital taxes are a hindrance.

The sharp rise in technology-related cyber and physical violence against women (PDF) and its normalisation has also made internet use a gendered issue.

Workplace skills requirements

As automation and artificial intelligence improve efficiency, productivity and growth, many people – especially women – may need to switch occupations or upgrade their skills. During the pandemic, people in formal jobs with the right digital skills were able to work remotely.

And while a report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that there may be enough work to maintain full employment to 2030 under most scenarios, it concluded that the transitions will be challenging. This is particularly so for women, who are often employed in informal sectors.

Restricted access to, ownership of and rights over digital technology

Although digital technologies and innovations tend to be considered universally beneficial, they are mostly defined by those who hold power and agency.  

Restrictive access, ownership and rights over digital tools and services can reproduce colonialist paradigms on control of knowledge and information.  

Communities need digital tools to manage climate risks and access markets and social protection. But access to these tools is often constrained by education level, external regulatory procedures, data protection issues and language barriers.  

Making digital technology more inclusive for a gender just transition 

These six actions can help bring about a more inclusive and gender-just economic transition by ensuring women, girls and other excluded groups have access to the digital technology they need:  

  1. Identify gaps and shifts in sectors, capabilities and skills, especially for women and others excluded from digital technology 

  1. Invest in building women’s and girls’ capabilities and skills. Increasing their access to education and career opportunities in STEM fields will improve their access to green jobs 

  1. Adopt transformative approaches to policymaking to shift power relations across all sectors, addressing inequalities and redistributing power 

  1. Regulate and engage digital technology developers to design inclusive tools that support the needs of women and other groups at risk of exclusion to increase social economic outcomes through access to social protection, new business opportunities and jobs

  2. Address social exclusion and increase access to technology across regions, countries, rural and urban areas, and other dynamics that exclude categories of people, especially women, from the low-carbon transition, and 

  3. Decolonise digital technologies by ensuring platforms and tools are tailored to – and can be easily adopted and used in – local contexts.

    Integrating local needs in languages that communities understand can increase trust and use of digital tools and help close the service delivery and economic gaps likely to be widened as the world moves to low-carbon transitions.