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Digital technology and Social Change

SI UN Representative, Maria Fornella-Oehninger, brings us the next in a series of blogs relating to the Beijing Platform for Action as she discusses the emerging theme of ‘gender equality and the implications of the digital revolution’.

“There is no aspect of social, economic, or political development that has escaped the rapid and far-reaching transformation of the Digital Revolution. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend and has revealed the digitalisation has, in many cases, deepened, rather than mitigated, gender and socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, we welcome the opportunity to advocate for digital inclusion both in this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) review of the Beijing Platform for Action which has recognised gender equality implications of the digital revolution as a critical emerging issue for the empowerment of women and girls, and in the UN Commission for Social Development (CSocD), which has set “a socially just transition to sustainable development: the role of digital technology and the well-being of all” as the priority theme for its 59th annual session in February 2021. The following notes reflect key ideas, research, and policy recommendations on the topic.

The digital technology revolution or fourth industrial revolution, as it is being called, has united our world while at the same time creating new divisions: new borders, a deepening of the North-South and rural-urban divides, and an expanded gap between the haves and the have-nots. It has opened new spaces for increased participation and exchange of ideas on the one hand, but one that can fuel violence and abuse, hate speech and political polarisation, on the other.

Like other industrial revolutions before it, it is dominated by commercial interests in the form of monopolies: the firms that generate new means of information and communication technologies are very few and are concentrated in two countries: China and the United States. Big Tech companies not only dominate the sector, stifling competition and innovation, but also have access to millions of internet users’ personal data, the most valuable commodity in the new digital era.

Digital Technology has deepened inequalities between and within countries; the unfortunate disadvantages for those not connected are self-perpetuating and will only accrue with time. No access to internet means no access to information and education, which will result in poorer health, no access to jobs, less participation in social, cultural, and political activities, and ultimately in social marginalisation and isolation.

Todays’ transformations are different from earlier technological revolution in the vertiginous speed at which breakthroughs occur, in their extensive scope as both time and space are abolished, and in the enormous opportunities they offer for positive social development.

Indeed, tech-enabled change could become the number one accelerator of the Sustainable Development Goals if priorities are set correctly. Information and Communication technologies (ICTS) underlie all SDGs from reducing carbon emission to building sustainable cities, from achieving gender equality to promoting good health and well-being for all.  If widely shared, ICTs can act as immediate accelerators of SDGs and Agenda 2030.

It is the role of civil society to advocate for the right role of digital technology in a Socially Just Transition to Sustainable Development and in the promotion of gender equality. Policy makers will have to address access, affordability and use through regulation and in partnerships with other stakeholders. Free global broadband access to all is a must: remote access needs to be conceptualised as a basic right and no longer just as a privilege. Whether it is for distant learning, virtual medicine, or remote work, the internet has become a daily necessity and will remain so as the pandemic reshapes the future organisation of societies.

It is imperative that these policies be gender-sensitive, since women and girls face additional hurdles on all fronts, whether it is in the inherent gender biases and socio-cultural norms still prevalent in most societies, or in their lack of education and technical skills that enable productive usage and adoption of new technologies.

While access to mobile technology is in general no longer a barrier (women are 26% more likely to have smartphones than men), it is in productive usage and adoption of these technologies where the main gap reopens: women tend to use the internet less frequently than men and for different purposes, more for social communication, on-line shopping and family activities than for online banking, job-seeking or for increasing their skills. In sum:

  • Skills in high demand in digital intensive sectors are displayed more by men than women, and this will increasingly affect the labor market of the future.
  • Women need to acquire more self-organisation, management, and communication skills as well as advanced numerical skills.
  • Girls still lag in enrolment in STEM studies; policy makers need to target gender biases in curricula, helping shape parental preferences as well as teachers’ expectations and biases, and promoting encouragement throughout the educational system.
  • Obstacles to adult education and lifelong learning for aging women need to be removed and more opportunities need to be created and coordinated across institutions and actors (employers, education and community institutions and social policy makers)


We must advocate for knowledge that is equally shared, and whose content is empowering to women and girls, and to all vulnerable groups.

As we foresee the dire consequences of Covid-19, starting with a precipitous drop of GDPs worldwide, the loss of human capital and the many jobs that will not come back, we must recognise that capital will rush in to produce short-term recovery; it will not be directed toward solving structural, persistent, long-term social problems like the rise of the working poor, the gender divide and the loss of educational opportunities.

Governments need to effect a change of direction towards a sustainable new balance that is less concerned with efficiency and more focused on building resilient communities, on the localisation of supply chains, on local markets and local food chains; on building smart cities, promoting cultural and political change in favour of gender equality, and overall protecting and respecting human rights and values.

To harness the energy and potential of digital technology for all, the reform of structures and institutions must revolve around people, for example, by creating an Ombudsman’s office so that people can appeal to an expert to bring their needs to policy makers. A shift to this kind of technology-based sustainability needs to be perceived as fair to gain public support. Digital technology is no longer a luxury, it is an every-day need that has become a public good. Change must come through a bottom-up, civil society approach, building “with” and not “for” the people. An internationally agreed upon framework on human rights and ethics will be fundamental to guide a governance process that includes accountability and transparency of the producers of technology in the private sector.

In the context of limited resources, a redirection of production, most notably in the post-Covid era, will require a shared burden, with a plan for redistribution through taxes, the right subsidies, and the elimination of tax havens. It will also demand cultural change: reduced consumerism, increased social cohesion and a new awareness of the public good, a higher public spirit of cooperation if, for nothing else, for mere survival.

The transformative power of digitalisation needs to be harnessed in the direction of greater equality. A more equal, more transparent, and more secure society will have to be the foundation of this transformation, and an absolute need for the paradigmatic shift we are facing.

Technology will guide change over the next generation; this will demand international cooperation and a rules-based globalised effort that takes into strict consideration human values. Challenges of implementation will always be present, but universal regulations, the power to monitor implementation and call out violators will be in the hands of international organisations and organised segments of societies.

This Fourth Industrial Revolution has produced a paradigm shift between physical and digital realities. This schism has been made more apparent (and the need to close it more urgent) by the pandemic. Time and space, the basic dimensions between which we humans organise our societies and our lives, have been all but abolished, thus transforming forever the way we live. Societies and governments must face the facts without delay. We must react now to make sure the advantages of digital technology for social development are widely shared by all, especially the most vulnerable, and its negative aspects are prevented from slowing down advancement toward completion of the SDGs and Agenda 2030.”

Recommended Reading:

THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION: Implications for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights 25 Years after Beijing, UN Women, 2020.

SI’s Beijing Platform for Action Review Blogs:


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