How Globalization and Technological Change Affect Gender Equality

March 8, 2017

The Mastercard Center’s senior fellows and advisors consider how globalization, technology, automation and the shifting nature of work are affecting women across the globe.

Globalization is a bad word in some circles today. “Its swirling influences over worldwide connections through trade, technology nd communications,” writes Yale Global, are seen as “a culprit behind growing inequality.” More losers than winners, in other words.

Yet on the other side of that globalization coin sits a set of winners that few consider: women.

“Anti-globalization efforts would cause developed nations to turn inward,”  says Linda Scott, the Center’s senior fellow and Emeritus DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Oxford and leading authority on women’s economic empowerment. “Since the efforts of the developed nations have been key to supporting women’s economic empowerment in the developing nations, this inward-turning trend would have significant negative implications.”

Urbanization and technology create unexpected opportunities for women

Our experts agreed that globalization and technology are helping to close the gender gap in employment and opportunities across the globe, sometimes in surprising ways.

For starters, jobs are moving to cities and in new forms that are more accessible for women. “Urbanization generally offers women the option to pursue a wider range of opportunities than is available in rural areas,” says Scott.  “In addition, women can sometimes escape traditions that constrain life choices, such as early marriage, by going to the city for work.”

In India, for example, says senior fellow Rama Bijapurkar,  technology and urbanization are lifting women up.

The IT–enabled services sector in India, she says, provides direct employment to three million people and indirect employment to 10 million, many of them young women. It is also concentrated in cities, unlike the male-dominated manufacturing jobs.

“Because of the nature of the job—desk-bound, predictable hours on large well-controlled campuses—even conservative parents are supportive of these jobs for their daughters,” says Bijapurkar, who also serves as the chairperson of People Research on India’s Consumer Economy.

Technology and internet connectivity have opened up other options for women as well. “In a country where far less than 10 percent of the jobs are in the formal sector,” Bijapurkar says, “women’s chances of having a shot at ‘regular jobs’ is very poor, so technology that enables them to start and sustain businesses without huge investments is a boon.” The Indian government has set up an online marketplace, Mahila e-haat, she says, that enables small female entrepreneurs to connect directly with consumers.

Technology also allows for remote working, which expands women’s options.

“In a country like India with no organized day care and with increasing nuclear families, this enables a lot more educated white-collar women to participate in the workplace and not be forced to drop out on account of child-rearing.”

For low-income women who work far from home, the declining cost of mobile phones means a cheaper lifeline to their children at home. “Their use of the phone as a method of emotionally bonding with and monitoring the safety of their children is huge,” says Bijapurkar.

Even automation, which is often labeled a “job killer,” has benefits for women, says Fan Gang, executive director of China’s National Economic Research Institute. “Automation may also make some jobs physically less onerous for women. A garment factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, apparently hires more young women [than men] today, just like the situation 40 years ago in Seoul or 30 years ago in Shenzhen,” he says.

Plus, says Scott, as vistas open, so does the imagination. “Globalization of information and entertainment also tends to illustrate new possibilities for different role models and more secular attitudes.”

Looking ahead in a tumultuous world

Turning inward and trying to stem globalization, says Fan, may turn back the clock on female advancement. “It may force many of those female workers to go back to their home villages,” while also eliminating blue-collar jobs for men in many developing countries.

As for technology, on its own, technology is gender-neutral, say the fellows. There is no inherent reason women should not be filling jobs in the tech sector. The real question, says Fan, “is not why a technology favors a certain gender, but why different people are treated differently when faced with same technology?”

“The gender gaps are not created by technologies or economic development itself,” says Fan, “but by something else, like barriers in the education or legal systems, or in policies, norms, and ideologies,” he says.  The real question is why women are blocked from those opportunities.

“The lack of basic education in the early stage of economic development makes rural girls less prepared for going out to cities to take industrial jobs, compared to the rural boys who are more likely to get some education in most developing countries,” says Fan. “By the same logic, the increase of female students in colleges from 39.7 percent in 1999 to 51.7 percent in 2013, and in graduate studies from 35.9 percent in 1999 to 48.5 percent in 2013, respectively, naturally results in more and more female professionals in financial and high-tech industries which are traditionally male-dominated.”

The benefits of including women in national economies, are becoming clearer. “The incentives for businesses to support gender equality are strong,” writes Laura Tyson, Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School, University of California, Berkeley, and a senior advisor with the Center in a separate article co-authored with development economist Jeni Klugman today. “Companies with greater gender equality in their workforce and top management can reap many benefits. Among other things, gender-diverse teams are correlated with higher financial returns and higher innovation potential and outcomes. And businesses with more women in top leadership and board positions enjoy stronger financial performance.”

Many public and private sector organizations recognize these advantages and are working to bolster women’s participation in the economy, says Scott. “There is great enthusiasm and commitment behind these new programs,” she says, “so it seems likely that the international effort [to include women] will continue, at least for a while, even if individual nations’ political cycles cause them to turn inward or de-prioritize gender equality.”

Featured Photo: Women work in a shirt factory in Nantong, in China’s Jiangsu province on December 1, 2016.  (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

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