Digital literacy can be used to describe a person who is confident of using a wide range of digital technologies for information, communication, and problem-solving in all aspects of life. It is underpinned by basic skills in ICT, namely the use of computers to retrieve, assess, store, produce, present and exchange information, and to communicate and participate in collaborative networks using the Internet.
Thus, digital literacy is about more than just knowing how to use the computers. To become digitally literate, a person needs to develop a range of skills. One needs to be able to use technology to search for and create content, solve problems, and innovate. One needs to be able to connect and communicate effectively online, learn, collaborate with peers, and discover and share new information. At the same time, one needs to be able to recognise risk, stay safe online, protect their physical and emotional wellbeing, and practise positive online behaviours.
Women nowadays need to be digitally literate more than before. Coordinated efforts by many parties in promoting the use of technology to empower women especially by improving access to healthcare, education and financial independence are needed.
To become digital literates, women need to have access to the Internet. According to ITU’s latest data, the proportion of women using the Internet globally amounts to 57 per cent, compared to 62 per cent of men. Men are more likely to use the Internet than women in all regions, except the Americas. In the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, the gender gap is growing because most new Internet users since 2013 are men. In 2022, there were 29.55 million Internet users in Malaysia, 45.7 per cent of them females compared to 54.3 per cent males. This means less than half of the women population in Malaysia has access to the Internet which becomes the platform for acquiring digital literacy.
Importance of Digital Literacy
With digital literacy, more women will be able to contribute to the country’s economic development when they are able to work with the skills they have, relevant to the current digital economic environment. According to the World Bank, Malaysia’s income per capita could grow by 26.2 per cent, which is equivalent to an average annual income gain of RM9,400 if all economic barriers are removed for women in Malaysia. Thus, women must be given equal opportunity as men to continuously stay in the labour market and contribute to the country’s economic development.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been identified as a once-in-a-century crisis, in which uncertainty is a constant and difficult choices must be made to protect employment and productivity, exposing systemic vulnerabilities at an economic level. Now that we are in post-pandemic COVID-19, some adjustments need to be done for women to return to the labour market.
Digital Literacy for Women Employment
Women need to have the following skills to become digitally literate:
Form the list of skills required to become digital literate, women need to be given opportunity and access to digital technologies, and more importantly the Internet in order for them to acquire, upgrade and use the skills for better economic opportunities.
Women’s involvement in the labour market cannot be denied even though they still lack behind as compared to men. As of 2021, only 55.5 per cent of women in Malaysia participated in the labour force, compared to 80.9 per cent of men. The majority of women are employed in the education, healthcare, hospitality, and public services. Even though Malaysia has progressed in reducing gender inequality, it is still high in comparison to the other developing countries. This is still true especially in the case of holding top postions in organisations. For example, in 2021, there were no female CEOs in Malaysia and the highest C-Suite position in which women were represented was the CFO. However, in 2022 there was a significant rise of 38 per cent of females holding the posts of CEO and managing director. This upward trend is promising, and additional digital skills could open more opportunities for women to progress in their careers.
Return-to-Work Challenges for Women
During the COVID-19 crisis, many women lost their jobs. They were forced to find alternatives for generating income to support the family. Post-pandemic COVID-19 holds many more challenges for women in addition to the need to have digital literacy. While many women are happy to be back at work, these challenges have become barriers for them to return to work. These challenges are:
1. Child care – many women are mothers to small children who need to ensure that the children are safe while they are at work. Many cases of child abuse have raised the concern of having child care facilities at work which also can be costly to employers.
2. Sexual harrasment – women are still facing the challenges of sexual harrasment from the opposite gender. The name callings, gestures, words used in conversations between colleagues at work could make women feel a bit uneasy.
3. Discrimation in promotion – this challenge occurs not only post-COVID-19. In fact this has been observed way before where women found it difficult to get promoted for important positions in organisations.
4. Housework or family responsibility – as working women, the time, and responsibilities they need to divide between family and job are blurry, what more in an environment where working from home (WFH) is becoming a trend nowadays. Family members’ understanding and support are needed for them to do well in both domestic and work environments.
These challenges will not stop women from progressing and contributing to the economic and social development. Nonetheless, they need assistance from all stakeholders to reduce the burden of coping up with family and work. Thus, we need to strive together with the relevant ministries, government agencies, employers, NGOs and the society at large to support women to succeed as a mother and a worker.
Digital literacy, enhances women’s skills to enable them stay relevant in our current Internet-worked world. As the old saying goes ‘the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world’, and women are definitely becoming Internet-world rockers.
Dr Noor Ismawati Jaafar is a Professor at the Department of Decision Science, Faculty of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaya.