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We invest in tech, then expect people to catch up. And women get left out of Digital India

One in 2 Indians in working population is a woman. But less than 1 in 4 own a smartphone. This gap must be closed if India has to leverage tech in economy.

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In the first two decades of the 21st century, India has, along with the rest of the world, witnessed the unfolding of rapid and significant technological change. This Fourth Industrial Revolution is restructuring the nation’s labour markets.

Against the backdrop of a working-age population (15+) in which nearly one out of every two Indians is a woman, and the declining trend in female labour force participation from 30.7 per cent two decades ago to 23.3 per cent in 2018, how women access, adapt to, and participate in this new technologically-driven economy must be a policy priority. Harnessing the productive potential of India’s women, and leveraging the benefits of technology in service of development and growth, both depend on it.

Also read: Millions of women absent from India’s workforce capable of adding Rs 30 lakh crore to GDP

A wide gender gap

Not only is technology ownership among women still low, but the gender gap is wide.  Estimates suggest that 46 per cent of Indian women between the ages of 15 to 65 own a mobile phone. Put another way, approximately half of the women in this age group still do not own one, and this figure is much lower than the 79 per cent ownership among Indian men. What is equally glaring is that of these women who own a mobile phone, only 24 per cent – less than one in four – own a smartphone. This, compared to 31 per cent of men. Fifty nine per cent of women own a basic phone and the rest own a feature phone.

“While the gender gap matters in its own right, it is particularly problematic because it can exacerbate other important forms of inequality – in earnings, networking opportunities, and access to information,” write Harvard Kennedy School researchers in their report, A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India.

What’s more, even though mobile and internet penetration is growing – among women too, women face an additional barrier in acquiring the skills needed to participate in the range of income-generating activities that the digital economy has to offer. While India has made tremendous strides in improving the enrollment of girls in education, their access to skills training continues to be constrained. Only 4.8 per cent of the females in the age group 15-59 received formal and non-formal vocational/ technical training in 2017-2018.

Among the restraining factors are families that consider additional training unnecessary; or transport and safety considerations that prevent women from attending relevant training courses; or the fact that women are relegated to certain gender-normative professions that define how they interface with technology. According to the 2017-2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey, males and females receive different kinds of training. Over 80 per cent of the trainees in the fields of agriculture and food processing, telecom, media and mass communication were men, while women were more likely to be in beauty and wellness, apparel, handicrafts, hospitality and healthcare. These are some of the reasons behind why, for instance, there are fewer women in gig-based transportation or logistics work than in online marketplaces where women sell handmade wares.

Also read: To get more women in labour force, India must stop pushing industrial areas to city limits

Disproportionate burden on women

In addition, whether by choice or by compulsion in the face of restrictive social norms, research confirms that women often prefer to work from home. Women value flexibility that allows them to balance domestic responsibilities and income generation. But this is also because they shoulder a disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities, to begin with.

The platform economy—specifically labour platforms, online marketplaces, and social media—is creating new work and entrepreneurship opportunities for women that are both home-based and seemingly offer high levels of flexibility. But does this form of work perpetuate the norms that limit the kinds of activities that women can participate in, and where they can participate in these activities from?

Whether in a discussion on ‘Blockchain for Development’ in Davos, or in meetings exploring the provision of skills training and job search services through online portals in India, the above data and considerations call into question the efficacy of consumer-based technology solutions that take internet access, smart-phone penetration, requisite digital skills and the ability of women to participate freely in the digital economy, for granted.

Also read: Don’t just blame patriarchy for fewer women in India’s job force. Blame our cities too

Investing in people first

Promoting the creation of technology solutions without also ensuring that we address these barriers that hold women back is like putting the cart before the horse. Technology, no doubt, has many benefits to offer.  But the pace, scale and reason for its adoption must be synchronised to equitable access, investments in human capital and uninhibited ability to participate for all, including women. Instead, at the moment, we invest in technological solutions first, either hoping or assuming that people will catch up. From paying more than lip-service to creating an inclusive and equitable economy, this must change.

We need long-run programming that helps change patriarchal mindsets that restrain women from owning and using technology; we need safer transportation and better access to a broader set of skills training for women so that they can participate in a range of economic activities, not just the ones that restrict them to home-based entrepreneurial work. We need a support infrastructure including, but not limited to, creches, flexible work schedules and properly executed paternity leave that relieves women of the disproportionate burden of domestic work.

The author is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Centre for Policy Research and President of JustJobs Network. Views are personal.

This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here.

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