Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, digitalisation has presented opportunities and threats, with the latter tending to reproduce gender and other inequalities. Whether the positive effects for women predominate will depend on effective regulation and positive action.
Reproduction of existing class, gender, and other inequalities in the digital realm, as well as exacerbation of these phenomena during the pandemic, point to the urgent need to establish a regulatory policy framework both internationally and on other levels. One plank of this framework should address global recognition of digital rights in a format similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A complementary plank would be policies on data governance especially at the global level where Big Tech firms operate. Furthermore, policies must tackle gender-based and other forms of violence in cyberspace while ensuring freedom of expression.
Acceleration of digitalisation due to the pandemic has worsened outcomes for women due to pre-existing digital gender gaps. In Asia, rates of phone ownership and internet access are lower for women, with a 19% and 36% gender gap in mobile phone ownership and mobile internet access respectively in South Asia. Women in Asia have more limited access to digital skills development. Mobility restrictions during the pandemic thus made it difficult for women workers in the informal economy to collect income support as many do not have digital bank accounts or are not familiar with the technology.
In Southeast Asia, women may be at par with men in basic and higher education, but are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Women still tend to be confined to certain occupations that mirror their traditional roles as homemakers and caregivers and are less valued in monetary terms. In the Philippines, women make up over four-fifths of all domestic workers, the lowest paid employee category. That keeps women stuck on the lower-wage rungs of the occupational ladder and they consequently earn less than men.
The pandemic and lockdowns have had a negative impact on sectors in Asia that are integrated into the global economy, such as business process outsourcing and export processing zones, where women are predominant in the workforce. There has been an ominous decrease in women’s labour force participation rate in the region, with a noticeable shift from formal to informal work. Women are more likely than men to be in informal employment in Southeast Asia (75.4% versus 75.2%) and South Asia (91 % versus 87 %). This contrasts with the global trend and implies women have fared worse during the pandemic as informal workers are not covered by social protection.
Digitalisation can be a force for good or bad depending on who owns, wields or controls digital tools and technology. That makes its impact contingent on effective regulation and positive action, including recognising and guaranteeing digital rights. Digital public goods and services must be provided to all, with a focus on boosting internet access and levels of device ownership for women and girls and ensuring they can acquire digital skills, as well as education in STEM and new technologies.
It is vital to foster participatory mechanisms for policy-making on digital concerns to increase representation of organised workers in the formal and informal economies, as well as that of women’s rights organisations and other civil society groups. Safeguarding digital rights, also specifically for women, is the primary responsibility of national governments but can be promoted and encouraged by enshrining respect for such rights in international conventions.
As millions lost their jobs during the pandemic, there was a noticeable shift towards platform economy work in countries such as India and the Philippines. The pandemic hastened the spread of such digital work, which had already been booming before COVID-19. However, the informalisation of platform jobs has made the work cheap, insecure and unsafe; this negatively impacts women as they comprise two in five workers globally on web-based platforms. Commonly used apps in Asia operate globally or are local subsidiaries of multinational companies. Furthermore, big technology corporations are at the apex and helm of the digital business ecosystem. Irrespective of their size, tech companies own, control and monetise the big data that feeds into the algorithms at the heart of digitalisation.
Governance of big data is thus crucial, impinging on individual rights to privacy and ownership of personal data generated. Big Tech must perform impact assessments on human rights and gender issues to determine and mitigate risks, such as the (long-concealed) harm Instagram can cause to girls’ mental health. Platforms must be made gender-inclusive, adopt safety policies, guarantee transparency, and offer remedies. States should revise taxation and labour laws to guide redistribution of digital gains. Countries need to generate even more fiscal revenue by preventing base erosion and profit-shifting manoeuvres of global corporations, including tech companies. These increased state revenues should be funnelled into robust public services and social protection, such as child and elderly care, to ease the domestic and care burden that falls disproportionately on women.
The upsurge in gender-based violence during lockdowns has been called a “shadow pandemic” and has rolled back gains in gender equality. This has exacerbated the online harassment and digital surveillance women and girls experienced even before the pandemic.
Big Tech must be regulated to stem online violence against women, weaponisation of social media, and non-consensual surveillance. Firms should be legally accountable for content pushed by their algorithms. Proposals to revise the CEDAW Convention to include the digital dimensions of violence against women and children must be fast tracked to provide an international regulatory framework for national governments and global companies.
Benjamin Velasco is an Assistant Professor at the University of Philippines Diliman and Co-convenor of the Alternative Development Program at the Center for Integrative and Development Studies.