Equity, not equality, will ensure women aren’t left behind in digital transformation

By Claire Thomas, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Hitachi Vantara.

Today, 37% of women don’t use the Internet. 259 million fewer women have access to the Internet than men, despite women accounting for nearly half of the world’s population. Those statistics are made more alarming when we are reminded that many fundamental facets of everyday life today depend on having Internet access and a degree of digital literacy: making a doctor’s appointment, online banking, even online learning. So, we cannot talk about gender inequality without also acknowledging this digital divide. In fact, the UN for Women even made innovation and technology for gender equality a focus for this year’s International Women’s Day. However, the issue is far more nuanced than simply assuming that by ensuring everyone has access to the same digital tools we will achieve gender parity. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

We must also consider the people behind the development of new technologies. Granted, since I first entered the technology industry some 15 years ago, the balance of men and women in the field has certainly improved. But there is still much more to be done. According to PWC, only 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women. And only 3% of women today say a career in technology is their first choice.

We’re living in one of the most exciting decades for innovation. Artificial intelligence is poised to revolutionise our workplaces. The world grows smaller and smaller by the minute as we connect with each other, instantaneously, from opposite sides of the globe. Soon, we may inhabit new virtual worlds where we can meet with friends, go shopping, or even attend concerts, all through digital avatars. At Hitachi Vantara, we believe technology has the incredible potential to contribute to society and build a better future, and more resilient planet, for generations to come. But if more women aren’t involved in the development and refinement of these technologies now, they risk further exclusion. Already, a global analysis of 133 AI systems found that around 44% demonstrate gender bias. So, for technology to live up to this promise, it must be made for all, available to all, and inclusive of all.

Fairness over equality

Conversations around gender inequality have shifted focus in recent years from equality to equity, with an acknowledgement that we must give individuals what they need to be successful, rather than treating everyone in the same way. That means not being blind to individual differences - such as race, ability, gender and sexual orientation - but rather acknowledging these differences and equipping people with the mechanisms, tools, and levels of support they need to excel regardless. But what does that actually mean in practice?

We know women do 2.5 times more unpaid work than men; that includes everything from childcare; caring for elderly or chronically ill family members; to household work, like cleaning. The reality is, the challenges that women must often contend with - and the barriers that hold them back - are often different to those of their male counterparts. So, when we consider ways of closing the gender gap the conversation must go beyond simply giving women the same tools or opportunities as men. That is only half of the equation.

We must consider how we can help alleviate some of those barriers for women. Integrating equality into the workplace with policies such as flexible working, mental health support, and additional support for parents and carers is only the first step. Let’s go back to that stat I referenced earlier - that only 3% of women would consider a career in technology as their first choice. This isn’t just an issue of equipping women with the same opportunities as men, it’s about inspiring and enticing women into career paths in the technology industry to begin with. And then ensuring that, once they’re here, these spaces are safe and welcoming so they can thrive in their chosen career paths.

Operationalising equity

I know how it can feel being the only woman in the room. While I’ve worked with some wonderful and inspiring men throughout my career, it can be daunting finding yourself in the minority. That’s one of the reasons I’m so deeply passionate about operationalising equity in my current role as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Hitachi Vantara. In my time here, I’ve helped develop initiatives aimed at bringing together and uplifting women across the company, giving them a space to support each other, advocate for equality, and develop skills to take their careers to the next level.

But I think something that diversity and inclusion initiatives can sometimes overlook is the value of allyship, and ensuring this is also nurtured in the workplace. Men shouldn’t be shut out from conversations about gender equality - instead we should invite allyship, educating and encouraging them to show up for their female colleagues. At Hitachi Vantara, we offer workshops and e-learning resources with Catalyst on Men Advocating for Real Change, to encourage male employees to become passionate advocates for change as well as raise awareness about unconscious biases, and how they can address these in their day-to-day lives.

Likewise, we cannot simply look at gender equality in isolation - it is an intersectional issue. To truly maximise impact, we mustn’t have a single-minded “women first” approach. Instead, it’s important to devise efforts that address the nuances of gender equality, taking into account how issues of race, ability, and sexual orientation also come into play. That’s why Hitachi Vantara have also co-created an allyship program with Token Man Consulting and Potentia Consulting, led by our Women of Hitachi employee resource group

(ERG) and with input from our Rainbow Connection LGBTQ+ ERG, that provides this intersectional lens to address gender equality.

Finally, initiatives cannot just be about optics - they must drive real change. Of course, we can’t reduce people’s lived experiences down to numbers on a spreadsheet. But there is value in looking at the numbers. Data is perhaps the best way to measure impact. It’s vital to collect and analyse data on diversity in the workforce, so organisations can paint an accurate picture of their employees and their lived experiences, and how effective their diversity and inclusion initiatives truly are. Does the workforce reflect the local community or the people it serves? Who is, and isn’t, being promoted? How can we use these insights to drive change? These are all questions organisations should be asking when interrogating their data.

Technology must be transformational for everyone

As we venture into this exciting new digital era, we must ensure no one is left behind. When driving forward new innovations, we will also tackle some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced as a society. And while using technology can help to solve these challenges and build a better future for future generations, we must ensure the voices of women are equally heard in this process.

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