How technology can help – or hinder – women entrepreneurs

18 November 2016
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A stall-holder does business in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar. Photo: Asian Development Bank CC-BY-NC-ND

As we mark the third global Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, the statistic to remember is that just a third of all formal businesses are owned by women.

As recently recognised by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, supporting women’s entrepreneurship is critical to achieving women’s economic empowerment. But too often this focuses on women in formal, growth-oriented enterprises, who are already relatively better off.

This matters, because governments worldwide have committed to achieving several Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets focusing on women’s economic empowerment. And they have committed to leaving no one behind – so the goals cannot be achieved unless all groups in society have made progress.

Most women entrepreneurs barely make ends meet

In reality, the vast majority of women entrepreneurs are not found in formal businesses, but in informal, survival-oriented income generation activities. They have limited opportunities to increase profitability, and limited choice in the activities they carry out.

As the International Labour Organization confirms, the numbers are staggering – 586 million women globally were self-employed in 2015, with 42% of women in sub-Saharan Africa and 48% of working women in South Asia classified as ‘own account workers’.

This category ranges from street vendors to women running small, unregistered household enterprises. And their income is often low and unstable, meaning routes out of poverty can blocked at every turn.

Technology: opportunity or challenge?

One solution proposed by the UN High-Level Panel is to improve women’s access to technologies. As their report highlights, mobile phones and digital platforms are already benefiting female entrepreneurs: connecting them to markets, providing multi-lingual training, and facilitating their collective action. For example, in India the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) supports women’s networking and access to market information on their mobile phones.

These technologies offer huge promise, reiterated by an SDG target (5b) aimed at increasing the use of enabling technologies to promote women’s empowerment. The problem is that 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones. And poor women in developing cities are 50% less likely to be connected to the internet than men.

The ‘Uber-isation’ of domestic work

ODI’s forthcoming research explores this further. It’s due out in December, but here’s a preview of our findings: domestic workers who use on-demand apps to find work – also known as ‘ women entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid’ – have told us of a number of benefits.

These include for the first time having a record of exactly how much time they have worked, and therefore earnt, because the app carefully tracks this information. On the other hand, gender digital literacy gaps mean male family members may engage with the platform on their behalf – and therefore control women’s working lives.

Join us to discuss solutions

Our research suggests that technologies can both empower and disempower women. Given the exponential growth in technology globally and the increasing policy focus on women’s work and economic empowerment – which will be amplified at the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2017 – this is an important moment for discussion.

With this in mind, Development Progress has just launched a new blog series asking: ‘How is technology changing women’s working lives in the developing world?’ Wide-ranging contributions aim to explore how technology can improve women’s work, as well as the challenges and how to overcome them. You can contribute comments on each blog or tweet @dev_progress.

We’ll also be holding a public event on 14 December to launch our new research and discuss women, work and technology. You can sign up to join us at ODI in London, or online.