Looking to the future is always an exercise in uncertainty, and forecasting or predicting how women will fare in the digital transformation is a good illustration of this.

The Economist recently had a look into its crystal ball. Noting that in 2018 just 7 percent of government leaders, 15 percent of board members and 3 percent of chief executives were female, the article told a tale in which women would reach global parity as CEOs and take over Davos in 2069.

The year 2069 seems a terribly long time for women to wait, especially as the digital transformation is moving so quickly, is so pervasive and offers so many opportunities. Smartphones are just the beginning of a new era where everything is networked and generating torrents of data, and where new avenues for “data-driven innovation” are opening up across every sector. We are seeing new business models where digital products can be developed without much fixed capital investment and can scale up rapidly across national borders. And digital technologies are enabling multinationals at the micro scale, so people can access market intelligence and tap into global networks from the get-go.

Nevertheless, the picture across all industries seems to be that for men and women there is a similar average risk of automation. The future depends heavily on the way digital technologies are embraced across industries, and adoption of new technologies is often slow. But innovation triggers new production, new consumption and new investment, all of which create new jobs. Currently the diffusion of digital technologies is quite uneven across countries, industries and firms, which adds to the uncertainty about the future.

An important question then is, Are women well-placed to participate in — and shape — the digital transformation?

Skills are a critical consideration here, not least because they provide an important safeguard against automation. Across OECD countries, more women than men are now tertiary graduates. In the workplace as a whole, women seem to receive an additional wage premium on their information and communications technology (ICT) skills compared with men, perhaps due to their higher literacy skill endowment, which complements their ICT skills and gives them a productivity boost.

But when you look at the skills that are in demand in digital-intensive versus less digital-intensive industries, women fare less well than men (figure 1). The labour-market returns to advanced numeracy, self-organization, and management and communication skills are significantly higher in digital-intensive industries. OECD analysis suggests that men are more likely than women to have the skills that command those wage premiums, and the returns to advanced numeracy skills as well as management and communication skills are significantly higher for men than for women in digital-intensive industries.

OECD work has shown that among innovative start-ups looking for venture capital investment, the share of females among founders is less than 15 percent in many major economies (figure 2). When we dig further into the data, we also find a gender gap in funding and acquisition of start-ups. In a sample of 25,000 start-ups operating across a wide set of countries and sectors, female-led business ventures (that is, start-ups with at least one female founder) are significantly less likely to be funded. Even when they are funded, they receive on average 23 percent less funding than male-led start-ups.

And women are not close to parity with men in contributing to digital innovation. The share of overall patents with women inventors remains below 15 percent in many countries, and it is typically lower for ICT patents than it is for those in other technologies. At the current pace, women’s participation in patenting (women-only or mixed teams of inventors) would reach about 49 percent only in 2080. There are also few women in the software development field: looking at a popular open-source programming language for data analysis called R, about three-quarters of the 12,000 R-based software packages created from 2012 to 2017 were produced by teams composed of only men, and women are again in a peripheral position when it comes to co-authorship.

Developing policy recommendations to address this gender gap was the purpose of the OECD’s work on bridging the digital gender divide, presented to G20 digital ministers in Salta, Argentina, in August 2018. Consistent with the OECD’s current cross-cutting initiative Going Digital: Making the Transformation Work for Growth and Well-Being, the analysis recognizes that digital transformation is shaking up established policy siloes and requires a more coherent and strategic approach to issues like skills and the gender gap.

The OECD’s integrated policy framework for digital transformation offers a useful structure for thinking about the policy approaches needed to ensure a positive future of work for women (figure 3).

The future of work for women can be bright, but if we are to close the digital gender divide, policy has a crucial role to play. The focus needs to be on putting in place concrete policy actions fostering women’s and girls’ full participation and inclusion in the digital economy, while at the same time addressing ingrained stereotypes and social norms that lead to discrimination and even violence against women. National governments are making efforts, and international initiatives such as EQUALS are bringing energy to the goal of achieving gender equality. But we need to step up the pace to realize a bright future of work for all. Let’s not wait until 2069.

The opinions and arguments expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD or the governments of its member countries.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by ArtFamily.

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Sarah Box
Sarah Box is counsellor in the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation. She assists with strategic oversight, coordination and communications on areas that include bridging the digital gender divide and the impact of transformative technologies on jobs and productivity.

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