Continuing Education and Training and the Digital Gender Divide
The economist Mariagrazia Squicciarini (OECD) presents the results of current studies on the digital gender divide1. She describes the key role of continuing education and training, gender-specific differences with reference to IT skills and provides her take on the “gender skills gap”.
What role do continuing education and training play from your point of view in the ongoing digital transformation in the world of work?
Squicciarini: We already see and will continue to see a lot of change in the world of work. Digitalisation is changing jobs the way we know them – their nature and tasks. Some jobs may disappear entirely due to automation. More importantly, however, most workers will see changes in the tasks they are required to perform on the job. As the content and nature of jobs change, so will the skills that workers need to possess to perform them. It thus becomes important to understand what types of skills are needed and how workers can acquire them. Continuing education and training therefore play a crucial role. The important question is no longer whether training is important or not. Instead, we need to ask which types of training are needed for whom and at what point in time.
You were one of the authors of several OECD reports about the so-called “digital gender divide” in which you take a closer look at gender differences in access to and the use of digital technology…
Squicciarini: … Yes exactly. In the reports, we show that women are not benefitting from the digital transformation as much as they could be. We can see that the digital gender divide affects women of all ages and across different countries. Based on analyses of a variety of data sources, we show that there are a range of gender differences for example in access to digital technologies and services, digital literacy as well as in the confidence to use digital technologies, but also in access to educational opportunities, including those related to information technology.
Is there such a thing as a gender skills gap?
Squicciarini: Men and women differ, on average, in the level of the skills they possess. This is due to different educational and occupational choices and opportunities and may be further reinforced during working life. Also, different types of skills appear to matter to different extents in different occupations. In general, with regard to the labour market, men tend to display relatively better numeracy as well as advanced numeracy skills, but also management and communication skills and problem solving skills in technology-rich environments. Concerning management and communication skills, these differences arise mostly because men have management roles more often than women and thus, in the long run, also more opportunities to further develop these skills as they are usually acquired through on-the-job training. But some of these differences have more deeply rooted causes. In fact, especially with regards to STEM2– and ICT3-related fields, to a large degree the gender gap in skills is a confidence gap before it becomes an actual skills gap.
What do you mean by confidence gap?
Squicciarini: There is evidence showing that gender differences in self-confidence emerge as early as childhood and they persist at later stages. Stereotypes and role models contribute significantly to gender segregation in different fields of study and work and to undermining the self-confidence of girls in general, and in particular in mathematics. This is one of the main reasons for the lack of women in STEM–related fields, including in information and communication technologies (ICT).
What role can continuing education and training play in addressing these gender differences?
Squicciarini: First, let me stress again that continuing education and training throughout one’s working life is beneficial for all workers – that is, men and women alike – in order to acquire the types of skills that they need to continuously participate in the digital transformation of the world of work. However, there are several reasons why opportunities for continuing education and training are especially important for women. One of them concerns the confidence gap I just described and the resulting lack of women in STEM- and ICT-related fields. While the issue of confidence needs to be addressed at a very early stage – especially within the educational system – continuing education and training opportunities can offer an important additional tool to do so for women who are already in the workforce. This is particularly important, as even in non-ICT occupations workers are increasingly required to be endowed with ICT-related skills. Another reason why continuing education and training opportunities are particularly important for women is that women are usually the ones taking family-related breaks from work in order to take care of children or elderly relatives, for example. Given the level and the speed of changes we see in the labour market due to digitalisation, training and upskilling opportunities become extremely important for women – or men for that matter – returning to their job from such breaks in order not to lose touch with the latest changes and developments in the workplace.
What about bigger changes, such as having to move to a new occupation because of automation?
Squicciarini: This is a very important question, as we will definitely see some jobs disappear due to automation and thus some workers will have to change occupations. In some recent studies on job mobility, we have taken a closer look at the question of what kinds of skills workers need to acquire in order to move from an occupation with a high likelihood of automation to another occupation, which is comparable in important aspects such as income level, but which is less at risk of being automated. We find that such occupational transitions are generally possible given the right kind of training. We have subdivided training needs into three categories based on how big the differences are between occupations: small training needs of up to 6 months, moderate training needs lasting up to 1 year, and important (re)training spells, which can take up to 3 years. Our analyses also indicate that female workers would generally need to bridge greater skills gaps than men in order to move to different occupations and thus potentially require more training. There are many reasons for this difference, including the type of jobs that women have or their educational choices and skills endowment (especially in the case of relatively older women). This leads to women having to upskill more in order to move into a different occupation which is less at risk of automation.
How can we ensure that workers receive the necessary training and what do we need to take into consideration with regard to women in particular?
Squicciarini: At the moment, and this is true across countries, companies often use training as a reward mechanism. This is problematic because workers with relatively low skills and thus with bigger training needs are often not considered for training opportunities by their employers. For women this can be problematic in two ways: first, many women and older workers are among those workers with relatively low skills. And second, reward mechanisms often work based on visibility and portrayed level of self-confidence of workers. We know from various studies that women on average appear less self-confident in their workplace and are generally less demanding with regards to rewards such as salary increases, promotions and also training opportunities. One thing employers could do is to take a closer look at who receives training in their company and maybe proactively approach women and encourage them to participate in training opportunities. However, we also need to think about ways to make training opportunities more widely available and how to move away from training being an exception towards it being more of a normality throughout one’s working life. Furthermore, we also need to think about how training opportunities should be designed so that workers as well as employers will benefit from them. In addition to questions of content and curriculum, this also includes organisational questions and the time needs of workers. Again, the aspect of time is particularly important for women. This is because women spend 2.6 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work, which restricts not only the time they can spend in paid work but also to participate in training. In general, there is a need for more flexible opportunities for adults to upgrade their skills and for co-ordination across institutions and actors, including education and training institutions, employers, but also social and labour market policy institutions.
„At the moment, and this is true across countries, companies often use training as a reward mechanism.“