E-commerce is a potential gold mine for women in developing countries, but to seize those opportunities women will first have to overcome obstacles of education, infrastructure and finance, says a new UNCTAD report, released today(1). And while they are already tapping into the growing demand for outsourcing in services, they tend to be clustered at the low end of the skills and salary spectrum and risk being left behind by new technologies if they, and their governments, do not prepare now.
Self-employed women in the developing world, be they microentrepreneurs or women working from home, are increasingly turning to e-commerce and the Internet as a way to earn income and save time and costs while also meeting their family responsibilities. The growing business-to-consumer (B2C) or retail sector in their countries offers many possibilities for small businesses with access to information technologies (IT). Such businesses have the advantage of low capital and skills requirements, and many of them are owned by women. Success stories are to be found on every continent. In India, an e-marketplace called IndiaShop has eliminated middlemen in the selling of saris. A nationwide housewives´ network in Peru, Tortasperu, which bakes confectioneries and sells them over the Internet, has generated lucrative work for women taking care of children at home while also providing the country with much-needed foreign exchange. Ethiopia has opened an Internet gift shop that sells traditional costumes, food and spices produced by women. And handmade products made by women artisans in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia are sold through a virtual shop called Elsouk. Such opportunities are particularly significant for women in Asia, where IT-enabled or remote services - business process outsourcing of former back-office operations -- have grown exponentially, and where women head 35% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
But this kind of e-commerce is limited to certain market segments, dictated largely by a country´s infrastructure and trading strength. Commodities like garments and handicrafts cannot be delivered online, and use of the Internet is confined to advertising, ordering and possibly collecting payments, which can be difficult in developing countries that have not yet developed or accepted secure online payments technology. Some women have thus found a market niche in the buying or selling of information rather than tangible goods. At Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, women buy cellphones and provide mobile payphone services in their shops or local markets; freelance women journalists in India and Malaysia deliver their services online.
More promising opportunities for women lie in the business-to-business (B2B) segment of e-commerce, the report finds. The ability to transfer digitized data online, assuming adequate infrastructure and bandwidth, is leading companies in developed and developing countries alike to outsource some business operations to distant and usually cheaper locations. Developing countries that can offer a cheap, skilled computer- and English-literate workforce are the most targeted sites - and that workforce is predominantly female.
Job prospects in telework
The global expansion of software and IT-enabled services has broadened the job prospects for women. Women in some Asian and Latin American countries hold more than 20% of professional jobs in software services. The worldwide demand for IT-enabled services is expected to grow dramatically. But while such work covers a range of skills, from data entry and capture to software programming and systems analysis, women tend to be hired for operations requiring less complex skills (see box). "It is worth monitoring this gender differential", the report warns, "as the next round of technological changes, for example in the areas of voice recognition and computer image processing, may make some of these skills less saleable in the international market". Because of the increase in e-commerce, such areas as network and data centre management, end-user support and web hosting are increasingly being outsourced. If women are to boost their share in these services, they will need more training in Internet skills.
In the meantime, however, teleworking has become one of the most popular forms of performing outsourced IT operations. It allows women in particular to work either from home or from such institutions as call centres or satellite offices, as required by the employer. While there is no uniform preference for types of telework among women in developing countries, age and stage of life do mould their choices. Younger, less experienced women tend to work in call centres, while older women and professional women with children often prefer home work, particularly when collective childcare is unavailable. Institution-based teleworking is generally a more attractive option both for working mothers with young children and for management, which finds it easier to monitor and supervise employees, the report finds.
|Digital gender ceiling
Women in both developed and developing countries are clustered in the low-skills end of IT work and largely absent from its upper echelons -- and this despite the fact that training policies are in theory gender-neutral. Few women are actual producers of information technology as Internet content providers, web designers, software programmers or computer troubleshooters. In the US, where 50% of Internet users are women, they comprise 85% of data entry workers and a minority of mid- to upper-level managers. The disparity is likely to be greater in developing countries, where an even lower proportion of women use the Internet, from a high of 38% in Latin America and 22% in Asia to a low of 6% in the Middle East (see table).
Combating "cyber sex discrimination"
But the experiences of developed countries will not necessarily be replicated in the developing ones. The report finds that when girls and women are given appropriate and sufficiently early education in science, technology, computers and the Internet, they can actually outperform boys and men. The collective use of telephone and Internet facilities can also help women to overcome access and infrastructure constraints and reduce the growing digital divide between countries and genders, warding off the "impending cyber sex discrimination" warned of by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Mobile telephony and other technologies are also narrowing the gaps.
Apart from lacking access to infrastructure and education, lack of capital is the third key obstacle to women in e-commerce. There are also social and cultural factors to contend with: in some societies, women have less free time, do not control family income or assets, receive less education than men and must restrict their presence in public. The predominance of English, which is a sine qua non for most outsourcing from the largest markets, the US and the UK, is another barrier, pointing to the importance of women learning English. At the same time, however, "the increasing trend towards multilingual content provides a digital opportunity in terms of language translation in software development and in web design in native languages", the report says.
In addition, the major ICT markets are now facing a serious shortage of IT skills, with the gap between supply and demand projected to reach 28% by 2004. The labour shortfall will be most severe in Latin America (63%), Europe, the Middle East and Africa (40%), followed by North America (27%) and Asia/Pacific (12%). The implications are promising for women, whose labour force participation rates have been rising in developing countries. This means the Internet has the potential to "ensure a level playing field for women and men", according to the report.