“Digitalization must be user friendly for women and girls. The digital world should foster equality.” – Tapiwa Thawi, 25.
The world around us is becoming increasingly digital and Malawi’s government has made digital transformation a goal by addressing it in key country strategies including the Malawi 2063 and the 10-year implementing plan. This has catalysed the growth of the digital innovation sector through increased demand for digital innovations, however female participation as suppliers of digital innovations is limited.
According to Malawi Labour Market Profile 2019, there are more men than women occupying positions in professional syndicates such as engineers, architects and medical associations that are considered are considered mainly ‘men’s-work’ in Malawi. The profile also highlights that the formal public sector in Malawi is also largely dominated by men. The most substantial gaps are apparent within civil service work and in the police, where men represent respectively 81 percent and 82 percent of the total workers. UNESCO studies show that women in the tech industry constitute only 30 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. This low participation is no different for Malawi with the digital and technology sectors predominately dominated by men. This poses a critical challenge to creating an inclusive digital economy and attaining key Sustainable Development Goals, such as poverty reduction and gender equality. Without concerted effort towards increasing women’s participation in the digital sector, particularly as service providers rather than as consumers only, women and girls will continue to be marginalised and economically disadvantaged in Malawi.
“We need to pay specific attention to women who are not privileged. We need to work towards getting to a non-gendered world where women can approach any job without any hinderance.” - Nthanda Manduwi, Founder Ntha Foundation.
According to Ms Manduwi, some of the hinderances to women participation in the digital innovation space as innovators, tech company founders or developers include the following:
- Male dominance in the digital innovation sector. There is a gender stereotype that men are better suited for technology related roles. This creates an intimidating work environment that is not welcoming to women. Although more women are now participating in this space and there is increased focus on training women, they are still the minority. Women tend to work in more stereotypically low-paying jobs in the formal sector. This issue has been registered in surveys that show that a smaller number of women were qualified within many organizations to occupy the managerial positions. This disparity is to a large extent due to discriminatory tactics employed by employers who are mainly men.(Malawi Labour Market Profile 2019)
- Cultural barriers in Malawi also make it difficult for women to participate in the sector not only as consumers of digital products and services but also as suppliers. Women are most often expected to prioritise home and family needs with careers in technology and digital innovation seen as too time consuming. These traditional gender roles often lead to less participation of women in these sectors.
- Lack of role models in the digital innovation sector. Despite three Malawian innovation hubs (mHub, Mzuzu e-Hub and Ntha Foundation) being founded or co-founded by young women, male dominance and cultural barriers have limited the number of female role models in the sector. Role models play a crucial role of inspiring other women and creating pathways for women to enter and participate in the sector without which fewer women and girls view digital innovation as a viable career path.
“Digital skills are a requirement when applying for jobs, yet a lot of people are being left behind because they don't have these skills. We need to bridge the gap in order for everyone to live in a digitalized world and access opportunities.” – Sharon Chilinda, Administration Officer at Kwathu Ndi Kwanu.
The snowball effect is that less women have the skills or experience to competitively participate in the sector creating a gender biased talent pool for employers to select resources from.
Having a skilled population of women is one element to ensure women and girls continue to have opportunities and participate in the digital economy reducing the digital gender divide. Furthermore, participation of women at the innovation level will ensure that the products or services being designed, developed and rolled out adequately cater for women and their unique challenges.
If women are not included in the technology sector or equipped to equitably participate in an increasingly-digitalised world, they will not be able to seek better opportunities or improve their livelihoods. Women who are not financially or digitally-included are not able to make contributions to or yield benefit from the economy. By imparting women, especially young women with digital skills, and enabling them to seek opportunities to create tech innovations, women are more secure, empowered and resilient to the fluctuations of a growing economy.
To address these barriers, the Malawian government has put in place multiple initiatives such as the Digital Malawi project whose objectives are to grow the digital ecosystem, improve digital connectivity and support innovations and use cases that use digital technology with a focus on women.
An inclusive digital economy can be achieved in Malawi, but it will take the efforts of ecosystem players, development partners and women and girls themselves. As a focus segment in the UNCDF Leaving No One Behind in the Digital Era Strategy (2019 – 2024), UNCDF views women as a cornerstone to achieving an inclusive digital economy that meets the needs of under-served people. Overcoming the challenges women have, which often reflect the needs of other under-served groups such as youth and rural customers, will increase their participation in the digital economy, and ultimately the real economy.
UNCDF continues to work with partners in the entire innovation ecosystem – policymakers, regulators, private sector partners – to ensure all sectors that impact women’s participation can collaborate effectively to achieve increased female participation for Malawi’s growing digital economy. For example, in fintech challenges conducted in Zambia, UNCDF encouraged fintechs with female founders or leadership to apply, thus increasing the number of women delivering innovative services to the market. This is an approach that can be applied in Malawi to achieve the same goals.