Bridging the gender digital divide towards a powerful, inclusive post-pandemic digital economy in ASEAN

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

“In the 19th century, the world was Europeanized. In the 20th century, it was Americanized. Now, in the 21st century, the world is being Asianized.” 
– Parag Khanna, The Future is Asian

This is a tremendously exciting time for Southeast Asia. It is now one of the fastest digital economies globally, home to multiple unicorn companies, and a region flourishing with opportunities thanks to the growth of the digital platform economy cementing its position as an emerging leader of Asia’s economies. However, the prospects and opportunities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) digital economy are still exclusive to young girls and women from the region as the gender digital divide continuously challenges them. If ASEAN wants to move forward as leaders in the global digital economy, it must be done inclusively, leaving no one in the region behind solely based on their gender. To ensure the future of the digital economy, investment must be made toward solutions that close the gender digital divide in the region and support young girls in achieving digital literacy, accessibility and equality. 

The gender digital divide, or the gap between those with the skills and access to the internet and technological infrastructure and those without based on their gender identities, can be perfectly analogised as “old wine in new bottles.” It manifests similar inherent root causes of unequal treatment towards young girls and women: restrictive gender norms, lack of adequate infrastructure and access, and lack of literacy skills in a rapidly digitising world, all of which interconnectedly hinders some young girls and women in the region from being more digitally skilled and literate. While the ASEAN region has shown progress in advancing basic digital inclusivity into one of the best in Asia, inequalities across meaningful access to the internet remain. Some ASEAN member states) like Singapore and Brunei already show near gender parity in terms of gender digital inclusivity. At the same time, around 20 per cent of low-income women in the cities of Indonesia and the Philippines know how to use the internet to bring them beneficial outcomes meaningfully. These challenges that young girls and women face in these areas and particularly the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, only remind us that investing in closing the gender digital gap must be a priority.

Investing in solutions to close the gender digital divide in the region is a win-win solution for both young girls and women and the region’s economic performance. Economists have called the COVID-19 global economic crisis a ‘shecession,’ where women worldwide are largely more impacted by the crisis than men because they lose their businesses and employment first. During the pandemic, women have tended to lose jobs first and are forced to take unpaid care work at home, or seek employment in more precarious sectors. As we move into the post-pandemic economic era, we must prepare for an ASEAN economy that highly values digitally-skilled-and-literate labor force. Thus, access and skills to the digital are a form of economic empowerment because it enables young girls and women in the region to participate actively in the post-pandemic digital economy and protect them from being excluded from employment opportunities. Closing the gender digital divide will also create more gender-inclusive post-pandemic recovery in the region, which has been stated to improve economic productivity. Lastly, closing the gender digital divide in the region will realise ASEAN’s goal in advancing gender equality as a part of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 goals.

In conclusion, the pandemic is yet another wake-up call for the region to close the gender digital divide, one that must heed more powerfully than ever before. As  economies grow more digital, workforces must ensure they are prepared and inclusive for all. Doing so will require an interdisciplinary solution from all parties. Among many other solutions, young girls’ basic digital skills and literacy must be strengthened.  A particular focus should be drawn to the provision of  resources that enhance their ability to access the internet meaningfully. Working to strengthen and widen the reach of existing digital upskilling workshops for girls must also be a priority. This can provide greater digital literacy training for both kids and parents in underprivileged and marginalised communities about safely and positively using the internet. 

Finally, ASEAN should also collect more diverse and gender-disaggregated data about young girls’ and women’s tech and digital literacy levels and explicitly include closing the gender digital gap in the region’s future vision goals. With prompt actions, we can all together create a digital economy atmosphere in ASEAN that manifests the ASEAN slogan itself: a region with one vision to be leading political entity in the global digital economy, where everyone, regardless of their gender, is empowered with the skills and opportunity to fully participate in the digital economy.  

This article was written by Miranda Aisha Putri, edited by Stephanie Plumb and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

More to explore