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Empowering women and girls in digitalization and Industry 4.0

20 September 2022 Elfi Klumpp

Empowering women and girls in digitalization and Industry4.0

This article was originally published in UNIDO's Making It magazine.

Today’s world is facing numerous, fundamental changes. It is transforming and accelerating under the impetus of greater urbanization and mobility, growing demand for energy, water and food, increasing production, and the need for new technologies to improve people’s work and life. Digitalization and Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things and Big Data are driving globalization beyond borders and have a vast potential to boost economic growth and social inclusion.

Industry 4.0 means taking digitalization from the office place to the manufacturing area. It means that production processes get digitalized, and devices, objects and humans get connected in a holistic matter. Automated processes and robots are taking over labour-intensive and repetitive tasks, and safeguarding the more intelligent jobs for humans, which is obviously more convenient. In this context, there is a tremendous window of opportunity for well-educated women in the field of technical and engineering disciplines. Industry 4.0 enables new customer values, e.g. through product customization as opposed to mass production. This increases data generation and thus the need for data analysts, a job profile that was non-existent a few years ago.

Opportunities for women

Digitalization and Industry 4.0 might be considered as a movement whether it is on the personal, professional or society level. A movement which creates opportunities for women faster than ever before. Looking at different income groups, countries or regions, the big question is to what degree and how quickly can digitalization and Industry 4.0 reach and effect the individual groups and leverage the potential of women’s inclusion.

The use of digital platforms provides women with a greater access to markets, knowledge and more flexible working arrangements. In addition to this, there is strong and growing empirical evidence suggesting that higher levels of gender equality are associated with positive outcomes in terms of income, economic growth and competitiveness. Companies with a greater gender equality in their workforce and top management are better able to attract and retain female talent, motivate their female workers, understand and respond to the needs of female customers, and better address complex business problems by taking account of gender-informed viewpoints. Consequently, technical education and the economic empowerment of women can bring dramatic gains in human development and well-being for individuals, families and society.

Full inclusion in industry

Hence, there is a strong need for women’s full inclusion in the industrial sector, and especially in the advancing digital economy and new technological environment captured by the term, Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 will have a profound impact on the content and nature of jobs and, as a result, the skills required to perform them. Many analysts predict that Industry 4.0 will cause a polarization of the labour force, with an increasing share of employment in high- and low-wage jobs, and a decreasing share of employment in middlewage jobs. In this scenario, as high-wage jobs will require increased digital skills, and as weak education systems often fail to provide basic technical skills, digitalization and Industry 4.0 are likely to be applied successfully by a STEM-trained workforce.

STEM education is the key

Thus it goes without saying that, in this context, STEM education is the key foundation for girls and women. Technical education and skills development at all levels, from primary school to academic education and life-long learning, are needed more than ever before. Girls and women need to be given the opportunity to get well-educated and highly trained in new technologies during the entire learning path, but also, more importantly, in the values associated with using those technologies. Further, women should be encouraged to exploit their entrepreneurial capabilities and be granted better access to financial capital and markets.

Education systems must not only deliver the ability to develop new technologies, but also educate people from a very young age in STEM skills, so that they understand whether, when, and where to use and apply those new technologies. Equally, they must also be educated to understand the benefits and impact these technologies create.

Out of poverty

STEM skills at all levels of the education and lifelong learning path are significantly and positively related to labour market return. Employment opportunities for women in manufacturing and digitally intensive sectors, and empowering girls and women in digitalization and Industry 4.0 are among the most promising opportunities for lifting millions out of poverty and spurring economic growth and structural change in low- and middle-income countries.

To conclude, investments in girl’s and women’s lifelong STEM and technical education have a huge multiplier effect on women’s employability, and their personal and economic well-being, and, finally, enhance their participation and relevance in the entirety of global economies and societies. n

- ELFI KLUMPP is Head of Business Development Global Education at Festo Didactic, a company providing equipment and solutions for technical education. Festo Didactic is a long-term partner of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and is one of the founding members of UNIDO’s Learning and Knowledge Development Facility.