UNCTAD – 6 things to know about women in e-commerce

It’s an open secret that the technology sector struggles to attract women. Could changing the narrative be a way to get more women involved in everything from code to commerce?

Women have played a key but shadow role in science, technology and innovation over the past two centuries. But women’s role, contribution and ideas need not be relegated to the footnotes of tech history.

The tools, talent and tenacity to tell a different story – and the truth – are plentiful.

“It’s a well-known fact that women in technology are underrepresented and poorly funded,” said Candace Nkoth Bisseck, UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women project manager for the new initiative.

According to Pitchbook, in 2018, start-ups in the US with only female founders took a meagre 2.2% of the $130 billion venture capital deployed.

Greater momentum behind a new narrative is needed to change the funding landscape while inspiring would-be women digital entrepreneurs to pursue their business ideas.

Earlier this year at the fifth annual UNCTAD eCommerce Week in April in Geneva, Switzerland, leading women in e-commerce came together to discuss how to change the women in e-commerce narrative. They also explored how such a narrative change could translate into more profits and opportunities for women e-business owners and entrepreneurs.

Here are the six lessons they shared about women in e-commerce and how a narrative change can help.
    1. Making women visible is not just women’s problem – it’s everyone’s problem.

The very first necessary step to changing the e-commerce gender status quo is to raise visibility. The next is to support women already in the industry doing the dual work of launching and running businesses, and simultaneously trying to manage and change perceptions. The goal is for everyone to get involved in making successful e-commerce businesswomen stand out and be proud.

  1. Don’t let men take over when something becomes economically significant.Successful women are not a threat. But super successful women often are perceived as threats – and this is when men tend to want to take over, or at least when investors and decision-makers are likely to hear men over women. Our women in e-commerce advise that when real investment is on the table this is the time to hold the course and keep steering your ship.
  2. We simply need more women on the internet.While the internet has opened new opportunities for women to participate in global trade and businesswomen can access a bigger global consumer base than ever before, there’s a big gap between male and female internet usage. These trends play out in developed and developing countries alike. Overall, 12% fewer women use the internet than men. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s as high as 25%, and in LDCs even 33%. Given the opportunity, women entrepreneurs are more likely to engage in digital entrepreneurship, but the challenge is facilitating this access in the first place. More needs to be done and more attention needs to be focused on digital inclusion. Our women in e-commerce called for greater efforts to achieve gender equality online to inspire more women-led e-commerce.
  3. Women need investors and businesses to play ball on an even field.The private sector and investors need to take up the cause of growing the number of women digital entrepreneurs, our women in e-commerce say. This is because it makes business sense. Cameroonian-born tech entrepreneur, Rebecca Enonchong, asked: “What can you do? The answer is: buy from us. One of the areas we struggle with is procurement. Something must be done in the procurement process to allow women to access it. We can grow without funding, but we can’t scale without funding.”
  4. Women need to want a bigger role in e-commerce, and badly.The message that we need more women who are ambitious and want to lead in the e-commerce field was loud and clear. “We need to push women to dream big. Together we must equip women with tools, skills and networks they need, and support them to rise to senior positions. Give women the opportunity and they will rise to it and ensure their extended family benefits,” said Nina Angelovska, now North Macedonia’s finance minister and previously the CEO and co-founder of the e-commerce company Grouper.mk.
  5. Governments need to get with the digital programme.We have the double challenge of gender and making the digital economy acceptable to governments, especially in developing countries. Houda Chakiri, CEO and founder of Enhanced Technologies, a Moroccan IT company specializing in developing eGovernment solutions, cited an example of when a government official told her that roads are prioritized over skills development for women in the digital economy. This needs to change. And together with more women in e-commerce advocating for change at the policy-making table, governments can deliver policy that provides access and opportunity.

The main takeaway was that with mentoring, role models, education and, ultimately, funding – sprinkled with legitimate trust and respect – women can be an e-commerce force to be reckoned with.

“Women in e-commerce often face a triple threat of lack of representation at the decision-making tables, unequal access to internet and funding, and limiting cultural gender biases,” Ms. Nkoth Bisseck said.

“ICT can help women access new opportunities, customers and become more efficient than before,” she added.

“Raising the profile of successful women digital entrepreneurs will contribute to inspiring and empowering the next generation of female entrepreneurs. It will also help to shift gender norms and barriers, increase women’s credibility in the industry, and enable them to use their voice more in policymaking processes.”

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