Report: Digital Fluency Can Be 'Significant' Factor In Advancing Gender Equality at Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 11, 2016
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Gender inequality persists in the workplace but being digitally fluent can help women narrow the gap, according to a new report. Digital fluency was defined as the extent to which people embrace and use digital technology to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective at work.

The study, Getting to Equal: How Digital Is Helping Close the Gender Gap at Work, is from Accenture, a global consulting and technology services company. It looked at the extent to which men and women adopted digital technology and its influence on their education in preparing for work, employment and career advancement. Findings are from a survey conducted December 2015 and January 2016 with more than 4,900 men and women. Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers were equally represented across companies of varying size.

“There are many ways to narrow the gender gap in the workplace, but digital is a very promising avenue,” said Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America, in a news release. “Continuously developing and growing your ability to use digital technologies, both at home and in the workplace, has a clear and positive effect at every stage of your career.”

The Digital Fluency Model that Accenture created for use with its survey helped gauge respondents’ use of digital technology—the devices they have access to, and how and when they use them. It looked at whether respondents had taken virtual classes through an online university, for example, used digital collaboration tools, and used instant messaging or webcams to assist them in their work.

Among the 31 countries that were represented in the survey, nations with higher rates of digital fluency among women had higher rates of equality in the workplace. The U.S., the Netherlands, the U.K., Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland had the highest digital fluency scores and rank among top performers on workplace equality.

Digital fluency can be a “significant” factor in advancing gender equality in the workplace, Accenture said in its report. But at the current rate at which women have embraced digital technologies, it predicted that developed nations won’t reach gender equality in the workplace until 2065. Developing nations likely won’t reach gender equality until 2100.

Accenture suggested in the report that developed and developing nations could reach gender equality sooner—by 2040 and 2060, respectively—if businesses and governments “double the pace” at which women become frequent users of technology.

Flexibility Factor

Use of digital technology leads to workplace flexibility, the report pointed out. Among working women surveyed, almost half said they use digital technology to work from home and to access job opportunities. Forty-one percent said digital technology helps them balance their personal and professional lives and gives them access to job opportunities. Almost 60 percent of women not currently employed said that working from home or having more flexible hours would help them find work.

The role digital fluency plays in workplace flexibility resonated with Anna Turner, SHRM-CP, vice president of product management for Charleston, S.C.-based PeopleMatter. Half of her staff works in Atlanta and half in Charleston.

“Technology is so critical to what we do and so critical for the [work/life] balance piece,” said the mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4. “Being able to leverage technology to work from home, or work flexible hours...it’s an opportunity for women to work differently than they have in the past,” especially if organizations want more women in leadership positions, she told SHRM Online.

An Accelerant at Every Stage

Being digitally fluent aids collaboration, too, Turner pointed out.

“We use our digital tools all the time,” she said, including GoToMeeting.com and WebEx.com for virtual meetings and Google Docs for projects. “It’s much easier to collaborate today than 10 years ago” because of digital tools.

Digital fluency, though, is only one factor in helping narrow the gender gap in the workplace—it’s not a cure-all, according to the report. And while it can have a positive impact on pay for both genders, the gap in pay between men and women is still not closing, the report noted. However, it stated, “we have ample evidence that it is a key factor and acts as an accelerant in every stage of a person’s career,” and it is increasingly important as women enter leadership roles.

Turner concurred. She said she often listens to work-related podcasts on her drive to work and has taken free online gamification courses, available from Coursera, taught by a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s just a lot of free content [available digitally] to help take people to the next level” of their careers, she said.

Other findings:

*In three-fourths of the countries studied, 76 percent of men use digital technology frequently vs. 72 percent of women.

*52 percent of men vs. 45 percent of women say they are continuously learning new digital skills.

*80 percent of Millennial men use digital channels vs. 75 percent of Millennial women.

*Countries where the digital fluency gap between men and women is largest: France, Japan, Singapore and Switzerland.

*Countries where the digital fluency gap between men and women is smallest: Argentina, Ireland, South Korea, Spain and the U.K.

Digital fluency is not the sole solution for closing the gender gap in the workplace, the report noted, and cultural factors are a “significant consideration.”

“Countries like Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, have reasonable levels of digital fluency,” the report stated, “yet are not achieving the outcomes [of gender equality] we would expect.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter. 

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