2186: according to the World Economic Forum, that’s the year we will achieve economic gender parity if progress continues at the current rate. It’s a hefty downward revision from last year’s prediction of 2133.

With these statistics, the estimate that seven out of ten women worldwide still suffer physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives and the rise of a world superpower ‘leader’ who has boasted of sexual assault and threatens to set back the clock on hard-won women’s rights, it is not so hyperbolic to suggest that we are on the verge of darkness.

But there are reasons for optimism; to #BeBoldForChange, to borrow the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. Alongside the dismal shifts we have witnessed there are two immensely powerful trends — the digital megatrend and women’s empowerment — that, if leveraged together, promise to become the great game-changer of the 21st century.

ICT (information and communications technology) is a forceful catalyst for gender equality and women’s empowerment, as underscored by its inclusion in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through my work as Director of a crowdfunding platform for women’s empowerment, I witness the transformative power of ICT every day. Solar-powered, mobile information technology classes are carried to young women from cemetery-slums in the Philippines, enabling them to obtain safe employment in the ICT sector. Women from tribal zones in Pakistan benefit from computer-assisted entrepreneurship classes. In South Africa mobile health (m-health) services are reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Indigenous women in Guatemala are changing their futures thanks to mobile microfinance. In Egypt online civic education campaigns and training are promoting women’s political participation. Using ingenious apps, women farmers in Tunisia are adapting to and even resisting the impact of climate change.

Here in our ostensibly liberated, high-income countries ICT is deployed daily to advance women’s rights and equality. Innovative apps and networks help prevent violence against women and support survivors. (In Europe violence against women costs societies an estimated €228bn per year, so such technologies have additional economic benefits.) Online campaigns combat stereotypes and advance gender equity in the media. Digital platforms enable crowdfunding for female (social) entrepreneurs. Campaigns and apps promote ‘gender-lens investing’, which takes account of empowerment and economic viability. Innovative software is automating screening of job applications and human resources processes, thereby reducing gender bias. Research shows that societies’ ‘digital fluency’ reduces workplace inequality, as well as offering women in particular the flexibility of teleworking.

“Decades of research prove that women’s empowerment is a key driver of wider socioeconomic progress”

Across the world digital technologies are helping women to enjoy their human rights and realise their potential, and this in turn has far-reaching benefits. Decades of research prove that women’s empowerment is a key driver of wider socioeconomic progress. It improves business financial performance and boosts a nation’s or region’s gross domestic product. The ‘Power of Parity’ report by consulting firm McKinsey estimates that narrowing the global gender gap in labour force participation could add US$12 trillion in global annual GDP by 2025. And narrowing the gap helps to address some of today’s toughest global problems, including poverty, food insecurity, and environmental sustainability. The stability of communities depends on empowered women, who are, at a time of spreading extremism, a powerful force for peace and global security.

It’s clear that women’s empowerment is central to wider socioeconomic progress, and crucial if we are to achieve the objectives of the European Union’s Europe 2020 growth strategy and the SDGs. And it’s clear that ICTs can catalyse progress for women.

But there is a roadblock. A digital gender divide that persists across the world – and one that is widening.

3.9 billion people – around half the world’s population – are still offline, and the majority of these are girls and women. Research estimates that women’s chances of benefiting from the advantages of ICT are one-third less than men’s. Across developing countries approximately 25% fewer women than men have internet access. In Africa only 12% of women are online.

Women in low- and middle-income countries face barriers of accessibility, affordability, inadequate digital education and a consequent lack of digital literacy skills, in addition to problems of cultural bias and mobility restraints. In higher-income countries, women remain chronically underrepresented in technology fields. Europe’s gap is stark: only 30% of the ICT sector is female. Women are particularly absent from advanced technical and decision-making positions, with a paucity of females opting for ICT studies and careers. There is an alarmingly leaky pipeline, with many women dropping out of ICT jobs and education. As governments try to correct the supply-demand mismatch in digital skills in the growing ICT sector, it’s estimated that the EU will suffer a shortfall of more than 750,000 digitally-skilled professionals by 2020.

Overcoming the digital gender divide is imperative: both morally, so that girls and women can reap equal dividends in our digital societies and economies; and for the economic, development and security reasons that are growing spectacularly more pressing each day.

“Governments must prioritise gender equality issues, integrate ICT policies with gender and development policies, and move beyond rhetorical commitments towards concrete actions”

The good news is that extensive studies have diagnosed the problems and we have an abundance of recommendations, roadmaps and action plans. These include the Gender Equality Action Plan by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency; the European Commission’s European Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT; and UN Women’s women and technology recommendations from the 60th session of its Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60). Meanwhile, savvy governments and businesses are implementing multi-stakeholder partnership initiatives — public, private and civil-sector — to advance women’s digital inclusion, digital skills and entrepreneurship, and to attract and retain more female talent in ICT sectors. Such moves address the digital skills deficit and open up huge, multi-billion-dollar market opportunities.

But much more needs to be done. We need greater investment in girls’ and women’s equal and affordable access to ICT, as well as girls’ digital skills education from an early age. Governments must further prioritise gender equality issues, integrate ICT policies with gender and development policies, and move beyond rhetorical commitments and towards concrete actions. More needs to be done to address cybercrime and protect women’s rights and safety online where, according to the WorldWide Web Foundation, “a culture of impunity reigns”. And we need better sex-disaggregated data and analytics to track progress. As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured, gets done’.

To change today’s digital picture we need greater political will. Governments, companies, educators, and civil society: we all need to invest more in girls’ and women’s digital empowerment. We must collaborate, and we can: our increasingly interconnected, digital age offers us unprecedented opportunities to take action. And everyone stands to benefit from increased gender equality in ICT.

Europe has everything to gain by being an exemplary global leader on this front. Capitalising on women’s vast talent to meet the demand for ICT skills could give an estimated annual €9bn boost to EU GDP by 2020. It’s our best means of ensuring productivity, growth, innovation and competitiveness, thereby reaping the wider socioeconomic benefits of women’s empowerment. ICT and innovations in ICT are shaping the world we live in and determining the values we live by. Women must be equal participants in this.

Online and elsewhere, debates continue about the Women’s March on 21 January 2017 and what its significance was, is and will be. One thing is certain: the Women’s March will go down in history as a landmark date, when countless women and men across the globe made their voices heard by calling for the protection of civil rights, and women’s rights in particular. But it’s worth remembering that this worldwide mobilisation began with ICT: a single Facebook post from a grandmother in a remote community on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Our common future can be safer, brighter and fairer. The world urgently needs empowered women, and ICTs are one of the best tools for women’s empowerment.

IMAGE CREDIT: Pramote/Bigstock