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Gender, ICT and Entrepreneurship

What Development Practitioners Need to Know about Gender, ICT and Entrepreneurship


What are the key gender differentials?
  • A note on gender:
    Gender equality and women's empowerment concerns structural change in uneven power relations. Development with a gender perspective promotes equitable development methods that take cultural, traditional, and gender stereotyping into account. The use of the concept "gender" is sometimes confused with just improving the status and position of women (as opposed to men). In fact the "gender" component to development suggests the improvement of women's social and economic status in relation to and alongside men's participation and involvement. It is not an either-or proposition.
  • Gender differentials in the MSE environment:
    There are distinct differences between men and women in their access to resources, information, and business support that have direct impacts on their business sustainability and success. Women usually face higher barriers than men to the kinds of training that can make them computer literate or equip them with the skills needed for ICT-related employment. Women also have less access to collateral and subsequently have less access to finance and affordable capital to invest in ICTs. As well, compared with men, women have less time to balance the tension between earning an income and caring for household members.[1]
  • Gender differentials in value of economic output:
    At the same time much of women's work remains unpaid. In developing countries women spent only one third of their time in paid Standard National Accounts (SNA) activities, compared with three quarters of men. If unpaid labor is counted, women do more work than men. In a study of 31 countries women performed an average of 53 percent of the total work burden in developing countries and 51 percent in industrial countries.[2] Compared with men, women are more often the shock absorbers of economic stress and uncertainty. Their economic values have been recognized as producer and provider, and more recently as consumer. More and more, however, as creators of wealth, women must also be valued as distributor. Women are both producers and distributors of wealth and this has critical implications if we really want to address poverty in a systemic way.
  • Gender differentials in financial assistance:
    Compared with their male counterparts, funding assistance for women's social and economic development is behind the times - it stereo-typically dominates certain sectors such as literacy, health, and fertility programs for women. Only a few agencies or foundations are beginning to enter the arena of enterprise training for women, and even fewer are investing in ICTs for use by women.
  • Gender differentials in access to business support:
    Women are less likely than men to be members of business or employers' associations. This finding provides a great opportunity for representative associations, such as employers' organizations or chambers of commerce, to increase women's membership.[3]

What are the ICT needs of women in the MSE sector?

  • Women are interested in all forms of ICTs. Women are innovative, and will work together if the technologies enable them to do so. They are constantly reinventing themselves and are imaginative about working within narrow confines.
  • Women are de facto social entrepreneurs. Their income objectives are often less about making profit for profits sake and more about servicing their immediate communities.  As a result they are willing to take risks and make the necessary investments to keep their enterprises competitive.  Table I in the "Women-Run MSE and there Adoption of ICT" case study section provides a summary of the training needs that women in this sector have identified.
  • Over the past two decades, women's rates of economic activity have been increasing in the entrepreneurship sector - women in advanced economies own more than 25 percent of all businesses. The number of women-owned businesses in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America is growing rapidly and with that growth, the direct impacts on job creation and poverty reduction improves. [4]  The Internet has a real impact on the growth rate of women-owned enterprises. For example in China women initiate about 25 percent of new business start-ups, and in Japan, four out of five small business owners are women.[5]
  • ICTs may threaten the "informal" nature of women-led MSEs. The typical woman-led enterprise that participates in ICT training events are pragmatic practices that straddle both the informal and formal sectors. They pick and choose those elements of the formal sector that will enable the business entity to maintain the optics of accountability and transparency, critical for business auditing and export-trading purposes. However, women-led enterprises also maintain a "shadow" business that keeps some of the income "safe" from declaration.[6] By implication, the application of ICTs to MSEs might push the business entities from the informal to the formal economies, and while this may be desirable from a national economy perspective, it might not be considered desirable from an individual entrepreneurs' perspective. Women have a pragmatic attitude to ICTs.
  • There is a fertile playing field for introducing ICTs to women entrepreneurs. In many ways, precisely because of the business challenges that women face, women recognize the quantum differences that ICTs could make to their business activities and are ready to adopt the new technologies in their businesses.

    They need resource and information support to:


    • Adapt ICT uses for both the informal and formal sectors;
    • Assess the risks and benefits of using ICTs;
    • Allocate time to integrate and understand ICT into their business strategies.

What do we intend to achieve by introducing ICTs in this sector?

  • ICTs in the small business sector can expand the universe of ICT applications to include electronic mail, documents, and workflow, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) applications in procurement and logistics management, demand-driven manufacturing and retailing, virtual enterprises, and groupware. E-commerce is the most visible aspect of electronic business, but it is just one segment of a larger whole. By implication, e-commerce is limited to those enterprises that have the technical and financial infrastructure to support encryption, on-line transaction processing, just-in-time production systems, and order handling and management systems. Enterprises in developing countries that have less reliable access to this infrastructure may be excluded from harnessing the power offered by these new tools. A more abstract understanding of what ICTs for business entails, i.e., the increasing virtualization of the three components of a market (agents, products and processes), lends itself better to envisioning the future of ICT use by MSEs in developing countries. Internet access and wireless communications are already of critical importance to businesses, small and large. A business transaction consists of many successive processes (information gathering, comparison, and negotiation) most of which can be carried out more efficiently over the Internet, even if the final step of the transaction is taken offline.[7]

The TOP THREE entry points to servicing the ICT needs of women-led MSEs

  • Business development services, including membership organizations, chambers of commerce, business schools, and other intermediary institutions that service the MSE sector.

  • Local and national public policy and policy stakeholders that directly impact the MSE sector, these can include employment associations, unions, government incubator programs, and local marketing boards.

  • Peer-to-peer networks between micro and small enterprises, their representative organizations, and governments.

A step-by-step guide to gender-sensitive ICT development for MSEs (or guidelines to good practice)

Stage I: A depository of information

The first stage involves building a depository of information on differences in the ways men and women would run their MSEs. Considerations in this stage include:

  • Gather information on the role of women in financial management and in local business practices, and their roles in decision-making and its relation to their economic earnings, responsibilities, and ambitions ;
  • Determine the existing systems of financial and business management that women already access, the kinds of business associations and service centers that women already tap, and women's needs that are not currently being met
  • Involve businesswomen and their representative organizations in discussing the role that ICTs can play and learn more about their needs and objectives. 

Stage II: Setting objectives

This stage involves processing the information gathered and setting collective objectives based on the outlined goals. When setting objectives the following need to be considered:

  • Identify those women-run enterprises that are viable businesses and not just income-for-survival initiatives
  • Design and conduct training "outreach" workshops that provide an "applied training" environment to enable businesswomen to understand the three dimensions of ICTs in business;
  • Work with regulatory bodies to determine what policies need to be implemented to ensure that women and men have equal access to ICTs
  • Identify the range of support services that would prove helpful to women to ensure that they participate in literacy, skills training, and decision-making. Determine the feasibility of the World Bank or other organizations supporting some of these client-specific services
  • Determine strategies to ensure that women's perspectives and input are incorporated into the decisionmaking processes in initiatives taken by the World Bank and other organizations.

Stage III: Implementation

The implementation stage brings together the predetermined objectives and strategy. Outreach and access are two important features. There is need to ensure that businesswomen are encouraged to become not only end-users of ICTs but also designers of applications. A community-based approach to reach out to businesswomen and their networks can provide the best means for including women from the start. Telecenters are a good example of such an approach.

Telecenters operate under many labels: "community technology centers," "virtual village halls," "telelearning centers," and "telecottages" are some of them (Anderson, 1998).[8] In the last few years, development agencies and private sector organizations have established telecenters in both rural and urban areas, to tap the growing demand for telecommunication services in both developing countries and in disadvantaged communities in industrialized nations. Telecenters usually serve a specific community. In rural areas, the target community may be a set of villages. In large cities, the telecenter may serve particular neighborhoods within the city, such as low-income areas. There are a number of telecenter initiatives that ensure that their outreach includes women or are exclusively geared toward women. Telecenters can build on these models to allocate time and space exclusively for e-marketplace activities that target businesswomen by:

  • Conducting active outreach and advertising, and sponsoring training events. A side product would be increased use of telecentre services by a wider audience whose comfort level increases with each visit.

  • Sponsoring training events to ensure that initial training and sensitization for businesswomen is nominal in cost; therefore, reaching out to the small business owner in low-income urban and rural communities.

  • Ensuring physical accessibility. This includes not only reasonable and safe distances for women, but may also mean extending opening hours to reach women whose preferred times may be early morning or late evening.  Some telecentres may also consider offering other services such as childcare facilities.

  • Extending beyond training services to providing women with an opportunity to gain invaluable work experience within the telecenter itself.

  • Ensuring relevance of services to businesswomen who must make choices among competing demands for their time.  If women are to use telecenters, they must clearly perceive the ways in which the telecenter can serve their needs. Telecenters can ensure relevance by providing training and services directly linked to women's needs, particularly those driven by economic pressures and family responsibilities.

  • Continuing participation strategies. Telecenters can only serve women's needs if they understand the particular barriers women face, and such local understanding will emerge only with the direct involvement of women in decisions about operations and management. Women clients may identify needs and obstacles that are invisible to telecenter staff. They may also be able to help develop effective, efficient ways to meet those needs.

  • Developing alliances with women's business education institutions, chambers of commerce and other intermediary business associations that already have a strong businesswomen membership base.

Stage IV: Evaluation

The following key data, qualitative and quantitative, should be collected and considered in this phase:

  • On a monthly basis how many women participants come to training events, how many drop out and why, and how many return to future training events?
  • What are the main market research sites that women entrepreneurs frequent?
  • What software, software training, and support services do women entrepreneurs in the region prefer, and what is the upward trend in use of ASP services?
  • How have the women responded to the financial and support services offered, and how have they benefited personally, in the context of their family, and with respect to larger society?
  • Which groups of women have or have not been reached with services?

Stage V: Maintaining fluidity and flexibility in program design

A feedback mechanism can translate the lessons learned from the previous stage into management decisions. Staff and clients should collaborate to determine if and how the program design should be changed to improve results.


[1] see appendix II of main report for a summary of broad gender differentials in the MSE sector
[3] ILO: The Knowledge Wedge: Developing the knowledge base on women entrepreneurs; what have we learned
[4] United Nations, the World's Women 2000
[5] Chapter 3: Gender, E-commerce and Development, E-Commerce and Development Report 2002 UNCTAD
[6] Networked Intelligence for Development, training experiences 1999 to 2002.  
[7] UNCTAD, 2001, E-commerce and development report  
[8] J. Anderson, "Applying the lessons of participatory communication and training to rural telecenters," The First Mile of Connectivity, ed. D. Richardson and L. Paisley (Rome: FAO, Sustainable Development Dimensions, 1998).  


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