E-commerce and digitalization can empower women in trade, but without gender-sensitive policies and actions, they can widen pre-existing gender gaps in society and the economy. To help avoid this, UNCTAD and the Chilean government co-organized an event to address this issue on 7 March during the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“We need to avoid replicating the obstacles women face in offline trade-in online trade,” said Simonetta Zarrilli, who leads UNCTAD’s trade and gender program. “The first step for doing so is to identify women’s specific obstacles in the digital economy.”
E-commerce: Challenges hindering women
E-commerce opportunities are closely linked to the availability and affordability of the internet and the skills required to use it. In developed countries, the gender gap in internet use is estimated at only 1%, while in the least developed countries (LDCs) it’s as high as 13%, according to UNCTAD calculations based on data from the International Telecommunication Union.
In 2022, more than 90% of women and men used the internet in developed countries, compared with 43% of men and only 30% of women in LDCs, according to estimates.
Apart from low levels of internet access and use, participants at the event discussed other barriers faced by women. They include a lack of access to finance, low knowledge about market requirements or e-payment options, limited business networks, and lower levels of entrepreneurial skills. These challenges make women’s e-businesses smaller and less profitable than those run by men and restrict them to low-value-added sectors.
Experts weigh in on bridging gender gaps
Alejandro Buvinic, head of the service in the investment and digital economy division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile said e-commerce is not easy for anyone because one needs a wealth of market and regulatory information, especially if doing cross-border e-commerce.
“To this, you need to add the challenge to operate in the digital environment, something still difficult, especially for women,” he said.
He added that Chile is bridging knowledge gaps and supporting women-led companies to explore regional markets through its “Mujer export” initiative. But what does it take for a young woman to become an entrepreneur in the digital economy, especially in a male-dominated sector such as video game production?
Fernanda Contreras Stange, head of the studio at Gamaga Games said: “Entrepreneurship should be taught to girls from a young age to give them the tools to start their own companies instead of playing the traditional role of supporting businesses run by men.”
In the ground-breaking Buenos Aires Declaration on women and trade, countries committed to making their trade policy more gender-responsive, noted Caitlin Kraft Buchman, CEO of the NGO Women at the Table.
“Something similar is needed in the field of digital technology. Neither trade nor technology is gender neutral,” she said.
How to empower women in digital trade
Participants said more women should be included in leadership positions in the tech industry to ensure digitalization doesn’t repeat and magnify gender biases in the analog world. They underlined the need to make the digital space safe for everyone but especially for women, who face digital harassment and hate speech more than men.
Also, stakeholders should collect sex-disaggregated data to inform gender-responsive digital policies, facilitate public-private partnerships and support digital platforms that pursue development goals through alternative business models. Participants said gender inequality and digital exclusion are not only morally unacceptable but also make no commercial sense.