Tech revolution: are Pakistani women being left behind?

Only 13% of women have internet access in Pakistan, in comparison to 29% in India

Fauzia Viqar October 26, 2019
A Reuters file photo showing silhouette of a woman.

We are living in the age of a technological revolution that has fundamentally altered the way people, organisations and institutions connect with each other. Technology has also transformed the world of work, launching the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) that is characterised by a range of new technologies such as financial technologies (Fin Tech), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and Deep Learning (DL) that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting every aspect of our lives today. This stage of industrial development is meant to connect people, goods and service with the aim of increasing productivity, alleviating hardship for people and lead to an overall improvement in the human condition.

Pakistan exists in the first, second, third and fourth stages of the Industrial Revolution stage simultaneously, with agriculture still being in the first stage, whereas our e-commerce and financial services appear to have leapt fully to the IR 4.0 stage. Despite delayed progress in some sectors in Pakistan, there is no denying that we are living in an age of technology-induced connectivity that is meant to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, communities, and organisations. But, is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the related greatest good being achieved for all? Are women included?

A few stark figures make it clear that the technology-fuelled revolution has perhaps not contributed so well towards the promised gender equality, despite assertions that technology would level the playing field by resolving women’s mobility issues and by creating positive disruptions with respect to the future of work for women. In Pakistan, women are mainly employed in agriculture, home-based work and informal jobs that are exploitative and offer no social protection. In formal work also, women are working in repetitive functions requiring low skill levels, especially in textiles, readymade garments, sports industry, etc. These functions render these jobs more vulnerable to redundancy when technological advancements in the industry replace human function. Reports show that around 60% of garment workers will lose their jobs in Bangladesh by 2030 with the invasion of automation. Data is not available for Pakistan but it is safe to assume that the loss will be greater and will hit women disproportionately due to their low skill levels and lack of preparedness.

New employment and entrepreneurship opportunities can be created via digital platforms that provide flexibility and circumvent barriers of physical mobility and domestic commitments. However, results are not showing an increase in women’s businesses that currently stand at only 3%, a regional low. In fact, a tech sector study ([email protected] Study) in Pakistan shows that women comprise only 14% of the workforce and that the sector is dominated not only by male tech entrepreneurs but by men in executive positions.

As a region, South Asia has not been able to tackle the tech or digital divide, with women being 28% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 58% less likely to use mobile internet. Pakistan is, unfortunately, worse than other countries of the region where there is a 33% gender gap in mobile usage and only 13% of women have internet access, in comparison to 29% in India. This translates into poorer financial inclusion outcomes, with only 7% of women owning an account at a formal financial institution in Pakistan, compared with about 36% in Bangladesh and 76% in India. The situation requires action on a war footing if we wish to launch Pakistan on the much-desired path of economic and social development.

What needs to be done to ensure women’s participation in the IR 4.0? To begin with, we need to tackle the societal perception that women’s only role is in the domestic sphere and that any other activity is incidental to this role. Financial imperatives are pushing women into entering the labour market, so it is critical to prepare them for a productive role with advanced technological skills. This will require the government to take a lead role in skilling, re-skilling and upskilling of women for greater inclusion and to offset technology-induced inequality and job losses. Flexibility in work hours and work-from-home, review of commerce-related policies to remove roadblocks for e-commerce and tax-based incentives for start-ups, are some ways of encouraging women’s participation in technology-based work. It will require a review of government plans for technical and technological skills development, in order to ensure their relevance and alignment with the future of work.

It all begins with an increased enrolment of women in subjects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics from school to university level. Like India, a strong government push to increase bank account ownership through biometric identification cards will also help narrow the gender gap in financial inclusion. Businesses will need to actively undertake technological skills enhancement of their workforce. And finally, cybersecurity will have to be increased to make cyberspaces safer for women. This will not only help with cyber frauds but also decrease online harassment of women, increasing their participation in digital platforms.

In his book, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, German philosopher and social scientist Friedrich Engels outlines the role of technological development in what he refers to as the “great historical defeat of the female sex”. Therefore, the enhancement of technical skills of the female labour force is necessary to prevent exclusion and marginalisation in the age of Industry 4.0.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2019.

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