Digital Transformation and Women’s Participation in Trade

Author: Thabelo Muleya

As digitalisation helps in reducing the costs of participating in trade, it is also be opening new opportunities for women to participate in trade. Digital transformation can serve as a tool for inclusive trade-led industrialisation. However, research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that despite statistics indicating that more women than men are tertiary graduates,  a close analysis of the  skills in demand in this digital transformation, show that women are still unfairly underrepresented.[1]

Recognising both the opportunities that digitalisation is providing for the economic empowerment of women, and the challenges of ensuring that the benefits of the digital transformation are being equitably shared by all, national governments are making efforts, and international initiatives such as ITC’s SheTrades are bringing energy to the goal of achieving gender equality. This is where we see the work of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 4IR Commission, established in 2019 to assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution.

The Commission has set eight preliminary recommendations to achieve this – several of which are pertinent to women’s empowerment. The first recommendation calls for government to invest in human capacity development, primarily focusing on women. The fifth recommendation is to incentivise 4IR industries should include tax breaks, assistance with research and development support and a particular focus on women as well as SMMEs. The Commission also recommends building a 4IR infrastructure which integrates with existing economic and social infrastructure. Fast and reliable internet connection is crucial to ensure that all, especially women, have a fair chance of fully participating in the digital economy. The seventh recommendation is to review, amend or create policy and legislation in line with the 4IR. These new laws should reduce the barriers for entry into the digital economy by women.

Implementation of these rather broad strategies still needs to ensure that women are well situated to participate in the digital transformation and to shape it.  There is, however, progress towards achieving this as we see prominent women in South Africa, including Zanele Mbeki, Precious Motsepe and Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, to name a few, actively involved in the International Women’s Forum South Africa (IWFSA). We are likely to see more women participating, through digital platforms, in trade as the African Union has also taken an initiative to advance the gains of digital transformation. With the Covid-19 pandemic pushing the whole world into the digital economy, the AU finally made public the ‘Digital Strategy for Africa on 18 May 2020.  Good news for women entrepreneurs!!

The International Trade Centre (ITC) has launched the SheTrades initiative, which seeks to connect three million women entrepreneurs to the market by 2021. As the ITC puts it, we believe women’s economic empowerment is not a matter for government policy, the private sector, or social change alone. All have critical roles to play. The SheTrades initiative tracks how and what policies enable women to participate and succeed in business and international trade.

As registered members of SheTrades, women can get benefits such as access to the SheTrades virtual learning. Users can participate in group activities, courses, and resources, on an on-demand basis. Through the platform, African women can also connect with other businesses from as far afield as Europe.  Buyers, sellers, and verifiers can connect and trade through the platform. SheTrades’ offer and source products and services promoting inclusion within regional and global supply chains and helping women do business. The platform has a Tenders portal where buyers can post sourcing opportunities for women-owned businesses.

While addressing ingrained stereotypes and social norms that lead to discrimination and even violence against women, the focus needs to be also on putting in place concrete policy actions supporting women’ full participation and inclusion in the digital economy. Policy has a crucial role to play to close the digital gender divide and ensure women are not only involved in digital transformation, but also to ensure their full participation in trade.

[1]OECD. 2018., Empowering women in the digital age: WHERE DO WE STAND?

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