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Around the world, approximately 1.1 billion people lack an official form of identification—which is incidentally the same number of people that lack access to formal financial institutions. In both groups, the majority of the underserved are women in developing countries. Widespread lack of official identification and financial services place similar barriers on women by restricting their mobility, economic opportunities, legal status, access to social protection and services, and political participation. These two problems are interlinked: 1 in 6 women cite lack of documentation as a reason she doesn’t have a bank account.

We know that technology—especially emerging technology on decentralized ID—has a huge potential in combating both these issues. We also know that technology has a huge gender problem worldwide.

200 million more men than women have access to the internet. Women are 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone. Ninety-five percent of online harassment is directed toward women. Only four percent of healthcare research and innovation is spent on women. Women hold only a quarter of all IT jobs.

The reality of these statistics is that in order for innovations in technology to benefit everyone, they must be gender-responsive. They must (1) account for the barriers that women face across a variety of contexts, and (2) achieve women’s goals and ambitions. Both these supply and demand principles need to be kept in mind for women to actually use these products.

Recently, IBM and CGD hosted a deep-dive discussion with tech and app developers to talk about how to move these principles into actions. We came up with these six scenarios where the tech companies and development sector could do more for women:

1. Financial Services

Women value convenience, security, privacy, and reliability when it comes to their finances. Mobile money offers these benefits, but the gender gap in mobile phone usage and lack of trust in formal institutions prevent women from opening and using digital financial services. Gender responsive innovations in digital ID can address the privacy and accessibility issue. Finance apps should be designed with women’s preferences in mind. For example, women are more likely to use leaner interfaces that are more intuitive and take up less space. They might also prefer an app that focuses on savings and money transfers (women’s two most used financial products). Organizations like GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications) are testing AI-based techniques to predict the identity of the user that is built into the app and add additional validation when needed.

2. Social Services

Women are disproportionately in need of social services (subsidies, loans, grants). The problem with most social payouts is that they are cash-based, therefore subject to leakage and corruption. This means welfare services often never even reach their intended beneficiaries. Digital payments via mobile apps like PayTM and Venmo may substantially improve their security and efficacy, perhaps through stronger validation mechanisms like fingerprint or face recognition. Including easy to use and adequate customer support within the app may help to address distrust during technical glitches—and this support experience must be designed with illiterate women in mind (short videos, sound bites, images). Developers should also consider designing a singular platform to distribute all social payouts and receive routine expenses like school fees and utility bills. Syncing these platforms with national digital ID systems, as has been done in India, may also lessen onerous “know your customer” requirements.

3. Healthcare

Women’s healthcare accounts account for a $500 billion disease burden. But research on women’s care tends to focus specifically on reproductive health; gender-specific research on physiology, autoimmunology, and mental health is lagging. These problems are exacerbated by rising prices of healthcare. Women also tend to be the primary decision makers for their family’s care. AI and automation of routine tasks can eliminate a lot of bureaucratic procedures, which could lower hospital costs. Widespread use of online platforms can relay and request information privately, promoting women’s autonomy over health care decisions and results. The “femtech” industry is also piloting wearable devices linked to mobile phone apps for real time monitoring, linked to family’s medical history and care. Menstrual cycle tracking apps like “Clue” have reached widespread acclaim—but these app-innovations often don’t benefit the most vulnerable women who, at best, only have 2G phones.

4. Education

Girls are 1.5 times more likely than boys to be excluded from primary school, which prevents them from fully participating in the labor force. While many education initiatives focus on getting girls to school, apps can be used to bring technical and business education to women already working. Access to finance and job market knowledge alone are insufficient in promoting women’s labor force participation—this requires cultivating certain financial behaviors and skill building. Developers have an opportunity to create learning materials that are accessible via mobile phones—through apps, SMS, video, and automated phone calls. These tools would be further strengthened if integrated within existing digital financial platforms, as studies show that business literacy in combination with financial services have the most impact on women’s economic outcomes.

5. Mentoring and networks

Both women entrepreneurs and employees report that lack of mentorship hinders their labor prospects—with about half citing it as their reason for leaving their industry (a problem that is exacerbated in the tech industry). Mentoring is extremely beneficial: 97 percent of women in a study by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women report gaining business skills and confidence; 80 percent of entrepreneurs report having more networks and markets to tap into; and 33 percent report that mentorship had a quantifiable impact on their financial stability. Mobile and anonymous mentorship especially may provide an element of trust and security and connection to people and markets across the world. Many women cite using platforms like Whatsapp to obtain micro-level market knowledge but these technologies could be also used to diversify the global supply chain: connecting women with larger multinational institutions with stronger procurement power.

6. Asset ownership

Women entrepreneurs face barriers in legally owning their assets, which lessens their credibility as a trusted business. Digital ID could help create certifications of credibility, and further distinguish business with over 50 percent female ownership as a “woman-owned business” with verified durable assets. This certification in turn could help companies diversify their supply chain because it’s easier for them to identify women entrepreneurs. These digital certifications need to be smart and reliable measure whether a business is truly “woman-owned.”

Technology is not the answer to closing the global gender inequality—but it is a powerful enabler. Both CGD and IBM are looking for more ways the private sector, technology industry, and governments can work together to innovate smartly and responsibly. We welcome your thoughts and ideas—you can find us on Twitter (@tjaluka, @srmuppidi) or leave a comment below!

This year’s Birdsall House Conference on Women (December 5, 2018) will further explore this intersection of technology and gender—stay tuned for updates.

About the co-author: Dr. Sridhar Muppidi is an IBM Fellow and Chief Technology Officer at IBM Security. He leads the technical strategy, architecture, and research for IBM Security, focused on both securing digital transformations as well as security management. Muppidi is a technical leader with 20 years of experience in security, software product development, and security solutions architecture for several industry verticals, leading various technical work groups in security and privacy and representing IBM in open standards activities. He is an IBM Master inventor with a number of patents and publications.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.