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Pandemic adds urgency to upgrade women's digital skills worldwide

By Diane Wang | | Updated: 2021-07-28 13:28
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Two female managers discuss business development strategy at an office in Beijing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

World Health Organization data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 4 million lives, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of New Zealand, and infected more than 187 million individuals so far, heavily burdening humankind in terms of physical and mental health, as well as economic stability.

According to UN Women and UNDP, women are losing their livelihoods faster than men because more women work in hard-hit economic sectors. The organizations have predicted that 47 million women and girls worldwide would be specifically impoverished by COVID-19 by September of this year, living on less than $1.9 a day. With this dire expectation, these two organizations, therefore, have called for various measures to shield the most vulnerable groups.

I believe that digital skills can actually help women get through this crisis when some countries still mandate mass quarantines and staying at home, based on my own experience working in the e-commerce sector for more than two decades and on my observations of participants in events such as the APEC Women Connect online conferences co-hosted by China-based B2B cross-border e-commerce marketplace DHgate in the past two years. Furthermore, with these newly acquired skills, women can, in the long run, achieve economic self-reliance and grow their business to a new level.

Meria, a Texas-based Zumba instructor, has started to learn how to leverage DHgate's decentralized e-commerce platform to earn a living after she was quarantined and lost her old revenue channels. Now she introduces Zumba leggings and tops from the platform to her fans in Facebook groups. Once her fans place orders from her channels, DHgate ships the items to her customers directly. At the same time, she can earn an income by selling products through her private online community without the need to understand detailed trade policies, operations and logistics.

Likewise, Ruby Xing met the unprecedented challenge at the first half of 2020 when the preschool daycare centers she ran in Beijing had to be shut down amid the city's measures to overcome the health crisis. The female entrepreneur then asked her staff to make short videos to offer parenting tips to the mothers and fathers of the kids aged under 6 who they used to care for. Now that the coronavirus has been well-controlled in China, Xing's business not only offers daycare services as before but also provides various online courses to parents and teachers to help them grow.

Women need funds and training to upgrade skills.

While Meria and Ruby represent successful cases of digital transformation in coping with the pandemic, there are lots of women and girls without access to relevant devices and skills.

I still remember a voice from a female farmer in Haiti. She said, "I have often heard the word digital platform, but never really knew what it meant or what it looked like."

The farmer is not alone. In India, only one-third of women have a mobile phone, compared to two-thirds of men, said Mohammad Naciri, the regional director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, during the APEC Women Connect Online Conference held this June, calling for attention to gender inequality in technology adoption.

"Women are ready to go for this digital platform. And once they get that entry, nobody can stop that," Chetna Gala Sinha, a social activist and founder of Mann Deshi Bank, told nearly 40,000 attendees of this same online forum. She said that women are willing to invest in a smartphone as long as they are provided proper funding, predicting increased penetration of smartphones can create more opportunities for women to do business.

The female activist has actually witnessed women's growth and advancement for years in her country. She founded the first business school for rural women in India in 2006 and launched a toll-free helpline and the first chambers of commerce for female micro-entrepreneurs in 2013.

However, hardware alone is not enough for women to be digitally capable of grasping business opportunities to survive this ongoing crisis and thrive beyond it, so proper training is needed.

One example is e-commerce, which actually represents a relatively fair playing field for both men and women as everyone can do business from anywhere, even a living room, with an internet connection. However, to deal with e-commerce, people, no matter men or women, need to know how to open online stores, how to select goods for sale in advance based on data analysis, how to use livestreaming to promote products, how to generate online traffic, and how to access micro-financing.

DHgate launched the Cross-Border E-commerce Training program (CBET) in 2014, offering online and offline courses with the most practical and hands-on knowledge, skills and entrepreneurial guidance. The project, which has been endorsed by the APEC and G20, has trained over 30,000 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, including those led by female entrepreneurs and policymakers across over 50 economies in the past seven years.

I have witnessed many inspiring cases in this process. Vivian, born in rural China, received CBET training about two years ago and later became the only embroidery vendor in her village to sell on our platform. She has made a fortune from this venture and has planned to enable local women to live a better life through e-commerce.

While I can see the magic of such training, I know that the efforts of myself and my company account for a small share of the global e-commerce sector, and the organizations I serve, such as ABAC, the private-sector arm of APEC, are far from enough.

In China, cross-border e-commerce grew 31.1 percent year-on-year in 2020 to hit 1.69 trillion yuan, way above the total annual growth rate of 1.9 percent for overall foreign trade, which reached 32.16 trillion yuan, according to data released by the General Administration of Customs.

I predict cross-border e-commerce will account for 30 percent of all foreign trade in China in 10 years, up from about 5.3 percent last year, which means there are tremendous business opportunities for men and women who are digitally ready, in each economy in the world.

Thus, we need to unite all stakeholders, including business leaders and governments, to provide sufficient digital training to all, especially the more vulnerable group of women and girls, to navigate this storm and prosper in the future.

Diane Wang is the founder, chairperson and CEO of DHgate, the leading cross-border B2B e-commerce marketplace in China. She is co-chair of the Digital Transformation Task Force at B20 Italy, and convener of the Inclusion Working Group at the APEC Business Advisory Council, driving the digitalization agenda for women as well as micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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