Q&A  | 

Why is stimulating digital skills key to mitigating the gender gap, with Cecilia Castaño

"Although it is not necessary for all women to be computer scientists or engineers, it is pivotal that they possess sufficient digital skills to benefit from them both at work and in their private lives and to lead and contribute with their talent to the digital and physical world."

Tags: 'Algorithm bias' 'Artificial intelligence' 'Data ethics' 'Digital gender gap' 'Digital Rigths' 'Digital transformation' 'Ethical algorithms'


Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cecilia Castaño is an Applied Economics professor and co-director of the Master's Degree in Gender Equality in Social Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid. A visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley, she is an expert on gender in the fields of information technology, science, engineering, and technology. She is the author of 'Women and IT' (Alianza Editorial, 2005), a review of the main feminist theoretical approaches to the relationship between gender and technology and an analysis of the ‘digital gender gap’ concept.

You have promoted training around gender equality, ICT and research in several universities in the country. Why makes fostering knowledge in these areas, especially among the younger generations, essential?

As a social scientist myself, I have always worried about how serious gender inequalities are in practically all areas: from the workplace, with female employment rates ten points below the male’s and an average pay gap of 24 points, to science and technology fields. The most prepared generation of women in Spanish history has a scarce presence in studies and jobs related to ICT, around 20% and below, and we also see this in scientific research, where women are plentiful in the first steps of this race, but begin to disappear the greater hierarchy and decision-making power.

These problems must be documented with data, their causes analyzed and the new generations made aware of their importance. It is essential that Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, and all the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution count on female participation to build the answer to the great challenges of humanity. These cannot be matters exclusively for male scientists and techies, but must necessarily include the contribution of women, incorporate their vision of the problems and take into account their interests.

On this matter, how can ICTs potentially contribute to the full participation of women in the economic and social reality of a country?

We don’t just need more female computer scientists and engineers. Digital skills are today essential to living and working, communicating, receiving information and training, and participating in civic and political life; and are especially related to employment opportunities for women. A good level of digital skills encourages them to participate in the labor market and find employment, and also increases the chances of having an ongoing contract. Therefore, it is essential to add them to all professional profiles, particularly those that are highly feminized. For example, in education, medical and healthcare or social services activities, technologies can help increase productivity and improve quality.

In conclusion, although it is not necessary for all women to be computer scientists or engineers, it is pivotal that they possess sufficient digital skills to benefit from them both at work and in their private lives and to lead and contribute with their talent to the digital and physical world.

A recent report by the Women's Institute in collaboration with the National Telecommunications and Information Society Observatory concludes that the Spanish digital gender gap has progressively dropped, up to one percentage point. Even so, the study concludes that women are still in an unfavourable position in digital skills and the use of the Internet. Why does this gap tend to perpetuate itself?

The digital gender gap tends to disappear because the vast majority of the Spanish and European population accesses the Internet from their smartphones. However, a gender gap in skills remains. Although women outperform men in advanced communication skills, they lag behind men in searching for information, using software, and solving problems online. As skills become more complex and specialized, the gaps widen even among the population with higher education; greatly because they are dynamic, expanding as technologies become more sophisticated and expensive. For example, 20.9% of women claim to be able to change software settings compared to 30.6% of men.

Women are gaining access to all uses and skills, but when they get there, men are already at the next technological frontier. In addition, there are still groups of the female population digitally excluded, such as older women, those with limited educational resources, and also in rural environments, immigration and poverty; all of them groups with few options to improve their access conditions, uses and digital skills.

What obstacles do women come across on their way to being full creators of technology and content? Do barriers overcome opportunities?

Digitization is both an opportunity and a far-ranging challenge for women. It can contribute to improving their living and working conditions, but it will also remove jobs traditionally performed by them, being these not updated and improved with the help of digital tools and skills. Women find it hard to access digital jobs, which are more creative, better paid, more flexible and shorter workdays than other highly-feminized ones related to healthcare. A key limiting factor is their housekeeping and childcare responsibilities, resulting in a lack of time to develop digital expertise and dedication, ultimately putting them at a disadvantage.

The so-called ‘brogrammer culture’ causes 65% of abandonment. Women complain that they are seen as intrusive, receive less training than their male colleagues, and have less freedom to develop their projects. Added to this are life events: the age range between 30 and 44 years is the key stage of professional development, and at the same time, the period in which most European women have their first child or have to take care of it.

Even so, not a few women take a step forward, facing, however, other barriers that are not easy to overcome. In particular, the requirement of exclusive dedication and at any time –a perverse mix of remote presenteeism and flexibility always in favor of the company –, the glass ceiling or the invisibility of women in professional maturity. Despite their efforts, they know that if they do give up the private and family sphere, at least partially, they will suffer sanctions in both the corporate and academic cultures. There is a key moment in the lives of women who work in the ICT/STEM fields, between their mid and late thirties, in which a majority decide to leave, tired of the hostility of the work environment, isolation feeling, a work rhythm consisting of “extinguishing fires”, endless days and frequent trips. It is time to ‘fight or flee’.

Overcoming male dominance in the strategic areas of education, research and employment related to science, engineering and ICT: where does the solution lie?

People insist on creating an inclination for ICT/STEM among girls as if there was a problem of generational change. But if current conditions do not change, when these girls land in the sector, they will end up leaving in the same way as their predecessors. To bring more women in, improving their living and working conditions is fundamental, and especially facilitating their permanence and promotion. But there is no single solution because the conditions are different at each stage. Policies on gender equality cannot be understood as milestones –for example, increasing female enrollment in ICT studies dramatically–, but rather as processes, establishing favorable conditions so that women who enter these sectors remain and can develop a full professional career, as well as a satisfying personal life.

Women should not be the ones changing. A cultural shift is essential, taking into account the concept of ‘care’ in the work cultures of companies and institutions. Structural changes are also necessary, such as, for instance, expanding the supply of affordable public care services, so that women can decide freely.

Not only women but society as a whole, how could a future expansion of the digital gender gap affect us? What are the risks? Are we aware enough of those?

The digital gender gaps are always widening and narrowing, because they are as complex and dynamic as the digital technologies themselves, and they are transversal insofar as they feed on other economic, social, and cultural ones. The risk of enlargement is enormous, as we have seen before in the most recent economic and social crises, such as the Great Recession, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which have left and continue to leave scars of economic and social exclusion among the most vulnerable population groups, particularly women and youth.

As a matter of fact, the report 'The digital gender gap: lovers and haters, which you co-authored, points out that there is not only one digital gender gap. Could you go deeper into the different types and explain why it is important to distinguish them in the analysis of ICT incorporation from a gender perspective?

We can talk about a first access gap from the point of view of the devices –smartphones, tablets and PCs– and the quality of the Internet connection. There is a second gap in skills and uses: women’s are more social and related with education and health; while the male ones have more to do with leisure, finance and sports. There is also a very important gap regarding ICT/STEM studies and jobs. Finally, a gap that comprises all of the above, which has to do with the ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technologies to improve the economic and social participation of women, yet far behind their counterparts.

The latest data from the National Institute of Statistics indicate that 6.1% of the Spanish population aged 16 to 74 did not use the Internet in the last three months of 2021. How can low digital literacy be reversed?

This is one of the hardest challenges of the Digital Transition. It is easier to distribute equipment and install high-speed, high-capacity networks than to incorporate people, because you have to reach out to them and incorporate their needs, interests, and concerns into the digital literacy process. In any case, some minimum requirements for training and digital literacy would consist of orienting them to learning how to use digital technologies, but understanding how they work, so that people, with their diversity of interests and needs, rule technologies to solve their daily, personal, family or work problems. Obtaining digital skills must come together with other abilities related with reading and writing, which is sometimes deficient in a not insignificant part of the Spanish population, as well as other strategic and transversal ones, such as creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

We must rethink the traditional dichotomy between the technological world and the one that is not. We have a young talent pool in Health, Social Sciences and Humanities, mostly female, and we have to provide them with advanced digital skills. This would contribute to promoting their employability, social and labour inclusion and appropriation of the opportunities of the digital economy.

The traditional story about the relationship between humans and technology no longer applies to us. It is essential to introduce technologies in social and humanistic environments and also incorporate humanists and social sciences professionals into these areas.