SDG #5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

The words of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5 are easy to read. Since the peak of the #metoo movement at the latest, the zeitgeist of female empowerment is breezing through board rooms, parliaments and lecture halls around the world. “Being a feminist” has become en vogue and several young women have become the figureheads of 21st century social progress: first and foremost, Greta Thunberg as the world’s poster child for climate activism, closely followed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai or US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Many will also still remember US Vice President Kamala Harris’s strong words during her victory speech as she ascended to the nation’s second highest office: “While I may be the first woman in this office,” Harris vowed, “I will not be the last.” Indeed, it seems that the times of women remaining silent are finally over. They are raised to have a voice and they make use of it. So, couldn’t we just tick the box for SDG #5 and move on to other topics? The answer is no.

Female Empowerment Remains Paramount

SDG #5 requires action to eliminate the root causes of discrimination that still curtail women’s rights and freedoms around the world. We must not forget that SDG #5 concerns all women, not just some extraordinary pioneers. The progress report of the SDGs shows that gender inequalities still persist on a large scale. To date, hundreds of thousands of women die every year due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth,[1] millions of girls still get married in childhood[2] and over 30% of all women become victims of physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.[3] Yet, in developing countries, women are often the backbone of the local and national economies.[4] They are caretakers of the family, central figures in the community and micro entrepreneurs at the same time. Especially in fragile contexts i.e. countries where political conflicts, corruption, lack of basic infrastructure or illiteracy prevail female empowerment is the key to reaching many other SDGs.

However, SDG #5 does not only address the structural discrimination against women in developing countries. It is also about female empowerment in mature economies. Here, the focus switches from ensuring basic needs are met to fostering an increase in female representation at all levels of political, economic and public life. Female empowerment in industrialized countries means finding mechanisms that provide girls and women with the same fair chance for labour market participation and success as men. Let’s take the example of Germany: although 54% of all high school graduates are female, their representation is only 20% of professors, 15% of entrepreneurs, 13% of DAX board members, 8% of pilots and 3% of Michelin chefs. So, despite girls seemingly having the same starting conditions in their professional life as boys, women remain underrepresented in influential positions in almost every sector. This gender gap presents a large, untapped source of economic potential and human talent.

The recent shutdowns due to the coronavirus crisis also exemplify how the predominance of traditional gender roles still significantly influence our society’s economic decision-making landscape:

According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), women are more affected by consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic than men. This is not only due to a decline in part-time work, but also with schools and daycare centers being closed, women have spent significantly more time on childcare and other areas of care work than men. With women still being the primary caretakers, they are forced to place professional aspirations on hold and must watch from the sidelines as leadership and board positions are distributed without them. Hence, inequality is chiselled even deeper into the stone foundation of our economic system.

Digital Technologies can Catalyze Change in Both Directions

With the broad and accelerating dissemination of digital technologies, we now have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to define the framework for the path forward. Digital technologies bring about unprecedented opportunities for female empowerment and inclusion around the world. New income and employment possibilities, as well as access to education and knowledge, can turn into leapfrog opportunities that not only benefit women themselves, but also enhance the lives of their families and the well-being of entire communities. At the same time, technology can also exacerbate the gender gap and catalyse the prevalence of unconscious biases. As long as women do not get equal access to digital technologies, they remain excluded from shaping one of our society’s most important drivers of progress.

Female Empowerment in the Digital Era

and sub-problems in regard to SDG #5 seems overwhelming. Achieving gender equality is what we social scientists call a “wicked problem”. Wicked problems are extremely complex social issues that involve contradictory knowledge, a plethora of different opinions and many ambiguities. They arise from multiple factors, and are both symptoms and causes of other problems. The meaning of female empowerment is highly contextual and varies across countries, cultures and organizations. It depends on different belief systems and centuries-long traditions that have shaped our perceptions of gender roles as well as the capabilities of men and women.

What becomes clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for female empowerment. Hence, we have to tackle the issue from different angles, take the time to understand complex relationships and identify which change mechanisms work in which contexts. Here are five starting points to design agendas for female empowerment in the digital age.

#1 Support Initiatives that Foster Digital Literacy

Only 51% of the global population have internet access, [5] and worldwide, roughly 300 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access the mobile internet.[6] To close this digital divide, we need to ensure that digitalization does not remain a luxury good. There are several pioneering projects that show how digital technologies can be used as a means to promote societal change. Examples are the GoGirls ICT initiative in South Sudan, which mentors women and girls in the fields of computer science, hacktivism and peacebuilding, or Code to Change, a Pakistani NGO that teaches women programming skills to succeed in the job market just to name two pioneers working on the frontline of female empowerment. Furthermore, both initiatives have been set up by locals who know the context and true needs of women in the respective areas.

#2 Invest in Digital Skill Building

The increasing expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation is creating demand for a new range of skills. As the division of work between (wo)men and machines will be redrawn, digital skill building becomes more important than ever for women. According to the World Economic Forum, only 22% of AI professionals are female today.[8] By 2030, around 40 million to 160 million women may need to transition between occupations, often into higher-skilled roles.[9] If nothing is done, gender gaps across traditionally male industries will deepen. Therefore, we need initiatives that aim at digital skill building for women at all levels.

#3 Harness the Power of Role Models and Networks

The gender gap in AI also reflects the broader gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As I have explored in my own research, having same-gender role models is extremely important for young women. Contact with other women in male-dominated fields evidently boosts the confidence of girls and women, allowing them to see that they are equally able to succeed in such careers.[10] Therefore, one cannot underestimate the positive effects of networks like Global Digital Women that bring together women across generations, organizations and disciplines. And even if women are still numerically underrepresented in many areas, digital technologies in general and social media in particular offer ample opportunities to exploit role model effects. This is shown, for instance, by the Inspiring 50 initiative that aims at increasing the virtual presence of women in tech or the Astronautin GmbH that aspires to send the first German female astronaut to space ‒ an objective that encourages women to strive for ambitious goals.

#4 Products for Women by Women

The digital era presents a tremendous economic opportunity to strive for full-spectrum diversity on the product side too. Products designed to improve women’s health and well-being for instance, by providing knowledge about birth control or gender-specific diseases are especially game-changing for female empowerment worldwide. It is no wonder that the market around women’s health and ‘femtech’ is booming. And yet, far too often, products are still designed by men without consulting future users. With new communication tools, agile development methods and rapid prototyping technologies, however, it has never been easier to include prospective customers in the development process from day one, no matter where they are in the world. So, even if women are not always part of the technical development, there is no reason to neglect their participation in the process.

#5 Question your Algorithms

In August 2019, NYU sociologists Mona Sloane and Emmanuel Moss published an article in Nature Magazine on how digital technologies, specifically AI and big data, can exacerbate inequalities and perpetuate discrimination. In the past several years, the possibility of working with increasingly large data sets has led to a hype around data-based prediction methods to back up strategic decisions or navigate user experiences. The sources of the data, however, often remain unquestioned. The problem is that algorithms are nothing more and nothing less than karaoke machines of real-world social dynamics. In other words, statistical models are only as good as the data put into them, and our digital world is already biased. The most prominent example of this is probably Google’s image search: search for “cute baby”, for instance, and receive mainly pictures of white, Western-looking toddlers (Don’t believe it? Try it out yourself!). With technology progressing at an increasing pace, now is the time to stop copy pasting the discriminatory structures of the offline world into the virtual space. Hence, there is a need to integrate mechanisms, frameworks and tools that unravel and fix biases in existing algorithms and to design new ones that are a true representation of our society’s diversity.

Dr. Laura Bechthold
Board Member Ethics & SDG Commission
EU Tech Chamber