EU’s digital transition – What’s in it for women?

09 July 2021 /

4 min

One of the most consequential impacts of COVID-19 has been the acceleration of the long-spoken process of the digital transition. From our daily routine to the State level reforms, digitalization is here to stay. Something the European Commission is intending to exploit when they announced that the recovery from the pandemic will be green and digital. As more opportunities are created in digitalisation, will women be represented in this male-dominated field? 

A digital recovery for Europe 

In the face of an economic crisis, the European Commission and the EU leaders decided on a recovery plan named NextGeneration Europe which laid the ground for a modernised and sustainable Europe. The €750 billion stimulus package and the 2021-2027 budget create an unprecedented opportunity for investment in the European Union, with a digital sector as a prime target. 

According to Digital Europe, we have seen years of digital advances in just a few months. It is, thus, consensual in Europe that the recovery shall be based on digitalization.

In this sense, more than 50% of the amount directed to the European recovery, a sum of more than €1.8 billion euros, will be used for EU’s modernization, namely through Horizon Europe, to support research and innovation; the Just Transition Funds that aims to support a fair digital transition and face the socio-economic challenges that might come from it; and,, the Digital Europe Programme (DIGITAL). The latter is the first financial instrument to bring digital technology, businesses and citizens together. It is set to fund and support projects in the areas of supercomputing, artificial intelligence and the use of digital technologies in society as a whole. 

The EU is certainly trying to achieve digital autonomy and becomes less reliant on systems and solutions coming from Silicon Valley and China.  However, by focusing on sectors with higher shares of male employment, such as the digital sector, the recovery plan for Europe is neglecting European women, who lack by large these digital skills. In contrast, European men will see job opportunities arise in their field of predilection. In addition to all of this, there are no gender references or proposals in the relevant EU documents.  The impact of digitalization on gender issues is also absent from the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.

Women in tech: an old digital trend

Women facing inequalities in the digital transition process is nothing new. Already in 2017, the OECD underlined the need for policy-makers to improve women’s labour market prospects in a future digital world. According to the Women in Digital Scoreboard (WID), a monitor of women’s participation in the digital economy and society, women are still less likely to have specialist digital skills and work in the field as only 18% of ICT specialists in the EU are women. Consequently, women are far behind men concerning digital skills, with a gap of 7.7% in 2019.

Women’s lack of digital skills is not the only gender issue facing society as a result of digitalization. As it became evident with remote working, women find it difficult to have a fair work-life balance. While some might argue that a “digitalized workspace” generates more flexibility in the management of our time, men end up being the ones dedicating it to work, training and life-long learning, while women are weighting most of the burden of the household activities and childcare. 

With regard to ICT and STEM education and work, despite the efforts to promote female representation, they are still lagging behind. According to Eurostat, in 2016, only one in six ICT students were women. A similar pattern can be found in the ICT labour market. Concerning gender representation in science and engineering, in 2019, Eurostat registered that women constituted 41% of the total workforce in the sector.

Why does it matter?

A gender-inclusive recovery has proven beneficial for Europe. In fact, the European Institute for Gender Equality already demonstrated that an effective, comprehensive gender equality strategy would result in macroeconomic gains for Europe. On the one hand, Europe faces an ICT and STEM-related skill shortage. On the other hand, improvements in gender equality in education and in the labour market are expected to lead to EU employment growth by a rate of 2.1 to 3.5 percentage points by 2050. Yet, gender equality also has proven beneficial for the private sector, leading to higher-than-average financial returns and consisting of an “untapped pool of talent”.

Throughout Europe, women have different levels of knowledge of technology: the best performing countries are Finland, Sweden and Denmark and the worst performing countries Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. This is an additional indicator that a European level gender-strategy towards inclusive digitalization is necessary.

Nevertheless, in March 2021, the EU launched the “Digital Compass”, which comprises four main points that should guideline the EU’s vision for the next decade. One of them intends to achieve a digitally skilled population and highly skilled digital professionals. Following this goal, the EU launched the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027. Even though it doesn’t have a dedicated section for girls and young women, it intends to ensure that they are equally represented in digital studies and careers. 

Some other proposals to overcome this digital divide pass by lifelong learning programs, such as mentorships and traineeships for young Women in ICT and STEM. There is also an increased need for women to have such a fulfilling work-life balance. This requires a generational re-education of gender roles to inspire more women to take leadership positions, especially in Big Tech companies. As for policy-making, there is clearly a need for European instruments that define the inclusion of women in the digital transition. 

[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]

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