How Can Digital Technology Support Gender Equality in the MENA Region?

Applying an analytical lens to structural barriers and exploring possible solutions towards an inclusive digital economy in the MENA region

Tackling gender inequality is an intricate and lengthy process, but digital technology can help fast-track progress. Digital transformation gives women the possibility to access finance, integrate into national and even regional and global value chains, as well as access knowledge. Although bridging the digital gender divide cannot solve all the challenges that women in the MENA region face, it carries significant potential towards gender equality.

  • How can policy and regulation best optimize incentives for market players to innovate, compete and invest along gender-sensitive technologies in the MENA?
  • What is the role of ICTs in facilitating women integration in value chains?
  • What partnerships have proven effective in engaging women both as consumers and producers of digital technologies?

Key points

  • The Middle East North Africa (MENA) region has the lowest rate of women entrepreneurs in the world.

  • The business case for digitally empowering women to contribute fully in the workplace is clear.

  • Role models are needed to cut through cultural barriers and show that women can be successful in the world of work.

  • ICT tools that enable women to control their financial situation equips them to plan their futures and play a greater economic role in society.

Synopsis

Failure to integrate women in the manufacturing and engineering sectors will lead to a widening of the gender gap. The EU launched an initiative in 2013 to address this issue in the MENA region, where barriers to information communication technology (ICT) access persist. For example, often even if a woman owns a smart phone, it is likely to be registered for a man. Gender disaggregated data is needed to target the gaps, but many governments are not equipped to gather such data. Questions must be relevant and not addressed solely to the head of the household, who is likely to be a man. Technology could help women farmers in North Africa, for example, but it is important to ensure that applications, their content and language, are relevant to women. In this case, therefore, a thorough gender analysis would allow for the better design of ICT tools. In Tunisia, although more than half of university places are taken up by women, just 8 % of women head up SMEs. Cultural, as well as technological barriers, are clearly a factor. Education may not be geared to equipping people, women in particular, for finding employment, and marketplace incentives for women are also often lacking. Attitudes to maternity leave and the traditional role of women represent an obstacle to women who may want to pursue a career. The private sector can be a valuable partner in closing the gender gap through digital technology, as Cisco Systems is demonstrating in the MENA region. It runs networking academies and ICT days for girls that have a track record of aiding them to find employment. Cisco says that cultural diversity is the fabric of the business. With an executive board that is around 60 % women, it benefits from different voices. But it has achieved this culture without the use of quotas – and so has avoided the negative optic of positive discrimination. Quotas may be helpful to kick-start a change in business culture, but they should be temporary. The importance of positive role models cannot be overstated. They show what is possible and help inspire others to pursue similar goals. As well as lacking the same access to funding as men, as they are less in control of their finances, women often do not make the same demands.

Insight

Female architects in Palestine engaged in a project to redevelop public squares made sure that designs were gender responsive: they relocated toilets to the better-lit, ‘women friendly’ side of the square.

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Speakers

Moderator
Monica Carco
O-i-C, Agri-Business Development, Rural Entrepreneurship, Job Creation and Human Security Division
United Nations Industrial Development Organization
Houda Ghozzi
Professor, Founder Open Startup Tunisia
Open Start up Tunisia
Susan Kaaria
Senior Gender officer
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Liat Shentser
Director Systems Engineering Sales
Cisco
Yllka Gerdovci Cancel
Policy and Programme Specialist on Women's Economic Empowerment
UN Women Regional Office for Arab States