‘Digital literacy; a powerful tool for the advancement and empowerment of women’

Anna attended the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women 62 (CSW62) in 2018. She is currently studying a Masters of International Business at RMIT University and also holds a Bachelor of Commerce. As well as this, she is currently working as a data analyst at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.


The significance of incorporating women into the workforce has never been more apparent. Not only in terms of its impact on the productivity of an economy but equally the social impact it has on a country. Previous generations of women have fought hard to place the women of today in such a position. As boldly stated by Hausmann, Tyson and Zahidi (2008), ‘a nation’s competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilises its female talent’. In developed nations, women have the opportunity to gain an education, work full-time and even contribute to the family dynamic. Yet still, women fall behind in key statistics such as participation rates and workforce utilisation rates. 

Undertaking analysis of key Australian government reports and statistical findings, this paper seeks to identify the primary areas in which women are falling behind in relation to utilisation and participation in the workforce. These findings will underpin recommendations for policy changes and harmonisation in digital literacy as one targeted solution in tackling lower participation and inclusion of women.

Proposed recommendations

Broadly, my policy recommendations are as follows:

1.     Build strategic partnership with the UK Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport, to review digital literacy policies targeting women in the UK and Australia

2.     Incentivise businesses to develop and implement digital literacy programs in the private sector to stimulate the supply of positions in the economy

3.     Streamline existing digital literacy programs and develop targets for participation in government programs related to digital literacy training.

Introduction & Context

Information and communication technology continues to change the way we work, connect and operate. Australia has made a particularly pronounced shift away from a goods-based economy to a service-driven economy that is reliant upon human knowledge and greater digital interactions (Heath, 2017). In response to these structural changes, the Australian Government has identified the need to place digital literacy high on the agenda of priorities (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015). This prioritisation is evident through its investment in digital infrastructure (such as the NBN), prioritising the STEM agenda in education- with training initiatives in schools to develop the appropriate skill set for Australia’s future labour market requirements. But the question remains; how can we use information and communication technology as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women?

The digital economy and digital literacy have the power to transform the female participation in, and their contribution to, the Australian economy. Universally, women’s basic education levels have increased yet gender gaps and labour force participation rates are still below-expected levels (International Finance Corporation 2013). Labour force and Census figures (ABS, 2018) highlight not only that there are more women in the Australian population (50.7% female to 49.3% male), but that across all age groups, female participation (60.6% female to 71.0% male) and underemployment rates (10.3% female to 6.7% male) are worse than their male counterparts - with many women being underutilised and interested in working more hours than they currently do. In a leading world economy such as Australia, there is more that should be done to bring these statistics into balance.

Digital literacy & the digital economy

Digital literacy is a ‘systematic application of and proficiency of digital tools’ (Sharp 2017). With access to knowledge and social networks literally at our fingertips, it has never been easier to be connected, highlighting just how important digital literacy skills are. However, the reality is, many women are still unable to access or fully understand how to connect and engage with technology or the digital economy. Without equitable access and if education is not granted to improve digital literacy skills, the full benefits of technology and potential of women cannot be realised (Antonio & Tuffley, 2014).  The World Bank (2015) underscores the influence of the digital economy; improved digital literacy has the power to break down the barriers for many women who are often excluded from traditional labour markets. This is particularly relevant for those who may be experiencing cultural biases, gender norms, time limitations and general security issues. The digital economy allows women to gain from increased accessibility and mobility and can break down the barriers often derived within a physical economy. It opens up a greater network of support for women with increased access to flows of information between individuals and groups. 

Through social media platforms such as Facebook and blogs, there is an opportunity for voices, ideas and stories to be shared which they may never have been exposed to before (Balaji et al 2007). Particularly around sensitive and complex personal situations such as domestic violence.  It also has the capability for them to take charge of their financial literacy, critical, as Onuzo (2016) highlights, in empowering a woman to be more self-sufficient. For those in abusive relationships, being able to manage and understand their financial affairs can be essential in enabling a woman to leave such a dangerous and toxic situation.

In focusing policies towards upskilling women in digital literacy it also provides a platform for women to re-think their identity and re-gift them their independence thus enabling them to challenge power structures and inequalities. Women often lack access to role models and mentors and internet platforms provide an encouraging new avenue for disseminating these entrepreneurial skills and models to women (Sorgner & Krieger-boden 2017). Fostering entrepreneurship is likely to bring greater sustained job creation and inspire the development of new ideas, innovations and products (Adema et al., 2014).  

Accenture (2016) conducted targeted research through an international survey, to unpack ‘How Digital is Helping Close the Gender Pay Gap at Work’. They indicated that the digital economy – including digital literacy and fluency, is allowing women to be flexible and agile in performing their jobs and delivering work outcomes. With many women forced to leave the workforce at some stage of their career to give birth and to attend to other maternal responsibilities, improved digital literacy skills allow women to derive even greater value from a flexible resource such as computers and the internet.  Their research suggests that 60% of women who weren’t currently employed would be able to find work if they were able to use Information Communication Technology (ICT) to work from home or have work flexible hours.

Participation and utilisation of women in the Australian workforce

When it comes to women’s inclusion and active participation in the workforce, there remain many assumptions, as highlighted in the Women in the WorkplaceReport (Krivkovichet al., 2017). Men often believe workplaces are doing a lot to support women and realise equality, but it is hard to solve problems that we cannot see or do not fully understand. The following statistics provide an objective lens to what is often a challenging issue to objectively demonstrate. 

As at January 2018, Australian statistics show that the female participation rate was 60.5%, the male participation rate was 70.6% and the overall participation rate was 65.6% (ABS, 2018). With historically and consistently low unemployment rates in Australia (5.5%), underemployment and underutilisation rates need to be analysed to better understand the breadth of the issue (ABS, 2018). The underemployment rate is ‘the number of underemployed workers expressed as a percentage of the labour force’, while the underutilisation rate is ‘the sum of the number of persons unemployed and the number of person’s underemployed, expressed as a proportion of the labour force’. For the same aforementioned period of time, the male underemployment rate was 6.7%, the female underemployment rate was 10.3% and the overall underemployment rate sat at 8.4% (ABS, 2018).  Similarly, the male underutilisation rate was 12.0% whilst the female underutilisation rate was 15.8%, with the overall underutilisation rate at 13.8% (ABS, 2018). These figures showcase that women are underrepresented and not participating in the workforce to the same levels as their male counterparts and more work needs to be done to counter this. 

The reasons women are behind men in these key figures are multi-faceted and can largely be attributable to culturally engrained norms stemming well into the past. However, with the ever-present and integration of technology into our everyday lives, digital literacy presents us with a unique and vital opportunity to continue to advance women’s position, to raise and increase the diversity in voices and opinions being heard, across many important issues. 

The current state of play in Australia

The Australian Government has targeted initiatives to increase women’s workforce participation and inclusion that span across multiple departments. Further streamlining in their approach to implementation would better concentrate precious resources. Furthermore, they could benefit from some very simple local level approaches that would resonate with women across each demographic. Given the work that has taken place in the STEM and digital literacy space, this paper aspires to be a stepping stone for instigating conversation across federal government departments; to discuss how digital literacy policies can be harmonised. 

Policy Recommendations

This paper recommends the Australian government make the following considerations to achieve its objectives in enhancing women’s digital literacy.

1. Build strategic partnership with the UK Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport, to review digital literacy policies targeting women in the UK and Australia

In 2017, the UK Government introduced a national Digital Strategy, targeting many areas it deemed crucial in positioning the UK to be a world leader in this space. Enabling a framework that would allow citizens and businesses to adapt to and embrace the digital age and lead the UK to become a hub for entrepreneurs and start-ups from around the world. Of particular interest was its focus on how to position women from all demographics to thrive in the digital age.

Examples of these programs include:

Techmums – a five-week course to help mums learn basic digital skills
Mums in technology– A baby-friendly coding school that offers a flexible way of learning
SheMeans Business partnership – aiming to deliver digital skills training to over 10,000 female entrepreneurs across the UK
FDM Getting Back to Business– a programme which supports women looking to return to work after an extended career break.  

(United Kingdom, Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport, 2017)

Diversity in the types and ages of the targeted programs permits a more inclusive environment and ensures diversity in approaches and perspectives. This is vital to promote a successful culture, particularly in businesses and the workplace (Prado 2015). With such a large -scale issue it is important that policies seek to implement simple and practical programs. These are more likely to have longevity as they gain interest and engagement from women. The programs highlighted from the UK Digital Strategy reflect these more simplified and targeted approaches, covering multiple demographics and stages in a woman’s life. As the broader strategy and digital programs are in their infancy, it will be important for Australia to instigate a strategic relationship between the UK Digital Office to monitor and review the success and implementation of their programs and how their learnings could feed into Australian policies around digital literacy.

2. Incentivise businesses to develop and implement digital literacy programs in the private sector to stimulate the supply of positions in the economy

‘Barriers and Incentives to Labour Force Participation’ (ABS 2017) indicate that childcare responsibilities are the largest perceived barrier to women participating in the workforce. Outdated norms and stereotypes of roles women should perform in the home and in the workplace, still create obstacles for their professional careers. This include but are not limited to: the desire to have children, the length of time out of the workforce to have children, who the primary caregiver will be, their ability to balance part-time work/part-time parent, whether or not they should return to the workforce once they become a mother.  The Australian government has gone to some lengths to increase the participation of women in the workforce. Several reports and papers have been published, and multiple programs implemented which have gone ways to raising the profile of key issues women face, as well as policies that may encourage them to enter and stay in the workforce. (Commonwealth of Australia, 2017).

However, in seeking change and equality, there is still a need to be more focused and nuanced in these policies to close the gap. The federal government must continue to develop policies that incentivise the private sector to employ and support women thus empowering women to invalidate the existing barriers and effect a change. Businesses need to be stimulated and engaged to develop programs that help women upskill in the digital literacy space, enabling them to build their own social and educational currency to feed back into the economy. Continued harmonisation across both the private and public sector to ensure consistency in approach and understanding from women themselves in what they can access will be essential to the success of any digital literacy policies.

3.    Streamline existing digital literacy programs and develop targets for participation in government programs related to digital literacy training

With government agencies offering different services and programs it can be confusing for the individual to be aware of what programs and funding they could access. To gain traction with participation in government programs related to digital literacy is twofold. Firstly, streamlining existing programs such as the WISE Program and Career Transition Assistance Programs (Commonwealth of Australia, 2017) into one policy or model will facilitate a smoother experience for women to engage with. Following this, targets need to be set to ensure the service provider in charge of delivering the programs and training are accountable and that the marketing of these programs is reaching the audience. Leveraging from the intelligence gathered from the strategic relationship with the UK Digital, Culture Media & Sport, the Australian government can set realistic targets; with respect to the number of enrolments, number of courses completed, number of graduates, to be achieved in the first year of implementation. In setting targets, the government should also consider trialling the rollout of the programs in specific capital cities or regions in Australia. This will allow for iterative improvements to the program before a larger national rollout. Assessing the participation rates in these training programs against the participation rates in the workforce will be a vital measure to track over time to ensure accountability and effectiveness in targeting the bigger issue of women’s inclusion in the workforce.


This paper acknowledges that the causes of underemployment and utilisation of women in the workforce are numerous and diverse and this paper cannot fully explore all the reasons why women are not included. A pure focus on digital literacy programs as a solution to women’s participation and inclusion in the workforce is limited. Those lacking access to the appropriate resources (computer or internet access) could feel excluded to the point they do not engage or seek out any of these programs. Furthermore, the government and private sector must deem investing in digital technology and literacy policies targeted towards women as a more-worthy investment and vital over other existing policies. They may deem existing policies and programs as sufficient particularly when compared to other pressing social issues.


‘Achieving greater gender equality remains a big challenge notwithstanding the important gains that have been made in women’s education and employment outcomes in recent history’ (Adema et. Al 2014). Whilst great traction has been made and new intentions set, even in developed nations such as Australia, there is still much work to be done to reduce the gap between male and female participation and utilisation rates in the economy. Improvements to the digital literacy agenda directed towards supporting women’s upskilling in this space, cannot be the only response, nor the only reason women aren’t included in the workforce as much as men. It does not guarantee that the gender pay gap will reduce, nor that more women will be included in the workforce. The critical element to note here is how women are empowered to upskill themselves. It is paramount to facilitate an environment where women feel confident they have the capabilities to obtain gainful employment or create their own business opportunity. In improving women’s digital literacy, they are better positioned to tackle these issues. It gives them the opportunity to work for themselves, thereby setting their own wage. It also gives them more in their artillery to go to the bargaining room and showcase their worth, in efforts to reduce the pay gap. Through information and communication technology and leveraging the work being done towards enhancing digital literacy to support the digital economy, we have a powerful accelerant to support any stage of a woman’s career (Accenture, 2016). Digital literacy is uniquely influential in education and employment which is too great of an opportunity and platform to turn away from and we must seek ways to use it to empower the women of today and for the future.



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