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MEMBER FOCUS: UN Women: Global perspectives on gender issues in digitalized financing

Last month’s meeting in Davos covered a wide range of issues that reflected the Task Force’s ambitious mandate. There are many possible directions for our work, but among the clear priorities: Task Force members are committed to advancing gender equality. UN Women will play a pivotal role.

Task Force member Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has served since August 2013 as executive director of UN Women, the lead entity within the UN system working for the empowerment of women and girls. UN Women’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021 provides deep analysis of both the challenges and the opportunities that technological advances pose for gender equality. Their participation in the Task Force is one key tactic in the larger strategy.

UN Women notes that digital financial technologies are accelerating women’s empowerment worldwide. Enabled by digital technologies, large financial institutions are increasingly offering gender equality exchange-traded funds (ETFs) which direct capital towards companies that champion equality. Research by UBS, one of the latest banks to offer one of these funds, shows that women have the potential to invest $2.3 trillion towards sustainability and social good by 2021. By dismantling the need for intermediaries, digital technologies enable women to play a more direct and active role in the financing value chain. Women entrepreneurs are raising capital directly through innovative peer-to-peer and investment platforms, and are increasingly creating cutting edge tech start-ups. ‘She Loves Tech’ has become the world’s largest startup competition focused on women and technology, active in 14 countries worldwide. And of course, the role of digital technology is well known for expanding retail-level financial services to previously excluded low-income women.

On the other hand, the growing gender digital divide, the gender gaps in the technology sector and the gender pay and investment gaps, all put women and girls disproportionately at risk to be worse offfrom the digitalization of finance. Women worldwide are 26 percent less likely than men to have a smartphone and mobile internet access. That blended figure masks important regional disparities: in South Asia and Africa, for example, the gap stands at 70 and 34 percent, respectively. The more that financing depends upon access to digital technology, the more women risk being left behind. Women also stand to be disproportionately harmed by machine-learning and artificial intelligence “weblining,” where algorithms classify data and make decisions that perpetuate existing biases in ways that become enormously more complex and difficult to undo.

As we start the work in earnest, UN Women’s expertise will help ensure that the research and analysis explicitly ask questions, identify barriers, and highlight likely consequences for women and girls. This will help ensure that the work is gender-sensitive and that recommendations both “do no harm” and actually “do good” for women and girls.

The Task Force Secretariat thanks Hélène Molinier, UN Women’s sherpa to the Task Force, for providing background material for this article and gratefully acknowledges the contributions of former sherpa Fiona Bayat-Renoux.

All are welcome to join UN Women for the official observance of International Women’s Day on Friday March 8. Among the speakers will be His Excellency António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations; UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; Her Excellency Geraldine Byrne Nason, Chair of the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women; leaders from the corporate sector (including Google chief marketing officer Lorraine Twohill); civil society leaders; and renowned scientists, artists and musicians. Friday 8 March 10:00-12:30; ECOSOC Chamber, United Nations Secretariat Building. Click here to RSVP. Please note that RSVPs do not guarantee seating; successful requests will be confirmed by 28 February.