Women are starting digital businesses but deserve more help
Yasmin Ali Gedi, 2019 Blog4Dev Winner, Somalia
Is digital technology another race in which women have been left behind? Globally, data show that men are 21% more likely to be online than women, a figure that goes up to 52% in the world’s least developed countries. Even though there are no clear statistics as to the percentage of men vs women owned digital businesses, women face many challenges in dealing with digital technologies. During COVID, though, in Somaliland, we saw many female entrepreneurs starting online businesses. ‘’I’m a mother who lost her job to COVID,” said Hamdi, an entrepreneur in Hargeisa. “I had a business idea but didn’t have enough money to open a shop, so I started an online fashion brand.”
In my interviews with online business owners, I noticed this was not the story of Hamdi alone. Women may face barriers in the digital economy, such as lacking the technical skills needed to run an online start-up, but some also overcome them. “I used to work in an office, hence I knew that I had to get digital skills—like graphic design, troubleshooting techniques, and digital marketing—to build a successful online business,’’ Hamdi said.
They learn digital skills through popular online learning platforms like Udemy and Coursera and even from YouTube. But some of them were lucky to find a women’s business accelerator program, with training given by digital professionals and business experts. Women are trained for four weeks in skills like digital marketing, business research, and design thinking to help grow and expand their businesses.
Skills like coding, which are not part of the curriculum in many schools in Somaliland, can go far in helping more women build the technologies they need to operate online. Often women also lack access to capital, which hinders the growth of their businesses. ‘’I fund my business without any external help,” said Marwa, an entrepreneur in Hargeisa who runs a beauty brand.
Investing in digital skills at an earlier stage of life is critical if we want women to prosper in the internet economy. Globally, women represent 28% of engineering graduates and 22% of artificial intelligence workers. Societal norms, education access, and lack of role models reinforce the gap between women and men in these fields. The world over, fields like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) tend to be viewed as masculine. Girls are not always encouraged to pursue them. This is reflected in the job market where women only made up 23% of the STEM workforce worldwide in 2016.
Digital skills alone will not make women successful. Data show that women (54.7%) are less self-assured than men (66.2%) in their ability to start a business. Even if at a position at the top of an organization, women won’t always recognize triumphs as their own. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman say in the The Confidence Code “When a man, imagining his future career, looks in the mirror, he sees a senator staring back. A woman would never be so presumptuous. She needs a push to see that image.’’
In the internet economy, self-representation is equally important. To be ahead of the game, more women must conquer imposter syndrome to start lending their expertise and sharing their knowledge. They don’t have to be experts to speak out; they just need a little more courage.
Digital infrastructure does not work in favour of women’s inclusion. Some of the factors that keep women offline are the high costs of devices and data usage relative to income. Addressing these factors will help pave the way to a more inclusive digital economy.
Despite all these obstacles, the digital economy could open the door to opportunities for women. If we want a fairer digital future, one in which women are a part, we must apply a gender lens and invest in including women.
Connecting women in this industry—perhaps on a platform to create dialog, raise awareness, and share experiences—is important to keep their foot on the accelerator. It’s time to offer more women a seat at the digital table! To get mothers to put away dolls and show their daughters pictures of women working in STEM!
Our intention should not be limited to getting women to be part of the future of work alone. The digital era needs more women leaders to create tech jobs. As such, access to capital and networks are vital for women in this industry too.