Even before the pandemic, digitalization has caused a productive and social revolution that has transformed the way we work and produce value, allowing us to generate, transmit, and analyze enormous amounts of data instantly. From an optimistic view of technological change, digital technologies create equal opportunities. It enhances the quality of life for people with disabilities, promotes small and medium-sized companies in global markets, connects rural regions with the world, facilitates remote work or distance medical diagnosis… and even diminishes gender disparity.
New technologies boost access to global markets while offering more chances for women’s inclusion at a lower cost. Moreover, as the cost is cheaper, digitalization allows for maternity-associated career interruptions without expelling women from the workplace. The resulting task automatization also affects more men than women as it mainly replaces physical activities carried out by men.
Nevertheless, technological progress leads to an asymmetrical distribution of benefits in some circumstances and opportunities are not always equally distributed among countries, companies, or people. Gender-based digital disparity was a reality well before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2018 Latinobarómetro, the Instituto para Integración de América Latina y el Caribe (INTAL), and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), women are less familiarized with the use of mobile apps and digital platforms—let alone conscious of their potential. The most accepted digital practice is using mobile phones to pay bills (37 percent of women and 40 percent of men). Gender gaps also appear in: controlling appliances and health via mobile phones (6 and 2 percent less respectively), and generating income through digital platforms (2 percent less).
Women disagree more than men on introducing boys and girls to new technologies from a young age (53 percent versus 67 percent). At the same time, they are less likely to let their children have online classes (7 percent gap). Unsurprisingly, women perceive themselves as less prepared for the jobs of the future (4 percent less).
Perhaps as a result, or as an explanation, women feel less inclined toward careers associated with new technologies. According to an INTAL and “Chicas en Tecnología” study in Argentina, only 1 in 3 students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers are women. This data is not unique across the region.
It is possible that the social effects of COVID-19 are accelerating the digital transformation process. Companies across the globe are incorporating more technology into their daily work. Kids have adapted to online school, workers to telework, and students to college life online; even elders are using these tools to communicate with their families or pay bills digitally to avoid contagion.
Will the pandemic increase or decrease the gender gap? Is coronavirus-induced digital acceleration an opportunity for women?
Studies show that, during the pandemic, women take on more house chores and children-related tasks. They are having greater difficulties in dedicating time to their paying jobs and learning new skills.
CEPAL estimates that school closures in 37 Latin American and Caribbean countries forced at least 113 million girls, boys, and teenagers to stay at home. This demands 24-hour attention to this age group which overloads families’ time, particularly women’s. In these regions, women dedicate at least 3 times more time per day than men to unpaid domestic and care work.