Speech: “E-commerce offers enormous opportunities”—Lakshmi Puri

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the Gender Dimension of E-Commerce Panel Discussion co-organized by ITC, ITU, UNCTAD, UN Women.

Date: Friday, May 5, 2017

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I participate in this dialogue just a month after the finalization of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which this year focused on the priority theme of “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” And women's participation and leadership as owners, entrepreneurs, suppliers, managers, workers and customers in the growing wave of e-Commerce and e-Trade is a major aspect of the changing world of work, production, trade and economy which could enable women to leapfrog into equal participation and benefit for their empowerment.

The discussion today is a great opportunity for us to continue to deepen our understanding of how the digital revolution is changing the world of work and of trade and commerce at all levels—international, regional, national and local. What are the challenges and opportunities that women face in this new context; as well as identify strategies to unlock the potential for women to benefit from and contribute to achieve sustainable development in the era of the digital revolution.

I want to begin this discourse on women's participation in E-commerce by recalling the shining example of one of UN Women's most important strategic partners from the private sector, Alibaba, which is one of the world's largest e-commerce platforms. Retailers and whole sellers selling almost everything under the sun!

It's CEO Jack Ma speaking at both the private sector summit we had organized and then addressing the historic Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, co-hosted by UN Women and the government of China in September 2015, revealed how he was inspired to start his mammoth business by the demand of a few women who reached out to him on the Internet and asked how they could market some goods they were producing on a small scale. 

He proudly declared that Alibaba today is truly an example of women's economic empowerment through E-commerce as 40 per cent of its management and 60 per cent of its employees are women and its suppliers and customer base also reflects gender balance!

Alibaba supports UN Women directly in our economic empowerment of women mission but also through its business model and practices.

E-commerce offers enormous opportunities for business-to-business and business-to-consumers.

E-commerce offers enormous opportunities for business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumers (B2C). In fact, in 2015 B2B was valued at USD 15 trillion and B2C at USD 1.2 trillion. B2C is growing fast, and is particularly important to growth in developing countries: B2C in Asia and Africa is expected to double in size by 2018 (UNCTAD, 2015).

The digital revolution has accelerated the global production of goods and services, particularly digital trade. In 2014 global trade in goods reached USD 18.9 trillion and trade in services USD 4.9 trillion.

Today there are more than 7 billion mobile subscriptions, 2.3 billion people on smart phones and about 3.2 billion people connected to the Internet.

Yet, 53 per cent of the world’s population (3.9 billion people) do not use the internet. Also, the rates of usage are lower for women than men in all regions of the world today.

Concern is growing: ITU’s most recent estimate indicates that the global internet user gender gap has grown from 11 per cent in 2013 to 12 per cent in 2016. A widening digital gender gap has significant implications for e-commerce.

The market is large, growing and women must be enabled to participate both business owners and business consumers, and profit equally as men.

The digital revolution and e-Commerce include high-tech industries, and a whole range of more low tech informal activities from agriculture to street vending. In Bangladesh female entrepreneurs use their phones to provide paid services for neighbours. Many people sell phone cards or sell and repair mobile phones across developing countries.

Women’s equal access to E-commerce is not only is a door of opportunity for women’s economic women, but also research has shown that money in the hands of women is spent on health, education—the family—benefiting the community and economy. Yet, caution must be taken for E-commerce not to end up reinforcing gender traditional roles within the households by keeping women at home and increasing their double burden of work and unpaid domestic and care work.

Some of these ‘specific challenges’ are revealed in the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Women’ Economic Empowerment. In fact, digital and financial literacy—the very cornerstones of E-commerce—are identified as one of seven drivers of women’s economic empowerment.

Intergovernmental commitments to promote women's access to technology

Intergovernmental commitments to ICT for sustainable development and how this can contribute to women's economic empowerment has received dedicated attention with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the 10-year review of the World Summit on Information Society.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that "the spread of information communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies" and calls for stakeholders to "enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women (SDG 5.b). [Also, the need for ensure access to technology appears in SDGs 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 14 and 17]

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda stresses that "harnessing the potential of science, technology and innovation, closing technology gaps and scaling up capacity-building at all levels are essential for the shift towards sustainable development and poverty eradication.” Member States resolved to undertake administrative and legislative reforms to give women access to appropriate new technology. Also, while recognizing the critical role of women as producers and traders, Member States committed to address the specific challenges to facilitate their equal and active participation in domestic, regional and international trade.

The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the review of the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10), acknowledged that a gender digital divide exists as part of digital divides, and encouraged all stakeholders to ensure the full participation of women in the information society and women's access to new technologies especially information and communications technologies for development.

In the same document, it was emphasized that only 41 per cent of women have access to the internet and called for gender equality in internet users by 2020. It was also acknowledged that ending the gender digital divide and achieving SDG 5 is mutually reinforcing.

The Agreed Conclusions of CSW61 recognize that women's lack of access to the internet impedes their ability to engage on an equal footing with men in education, employment and other economic and social activities.

It also provides concrete guidance for how Member States can close the gender-digital divide and address women's access to ICT for development. The Commission called on Member States and other stakeholders to support women’s access, throughout their life cycle, to skills development and decent work in new and emerging fields. This by expanding the scope of education and training opportunities in, inter alia, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, information and communications technology and digital fluency.

We have a strong normative framework but implementation remains a challenge

As UN Women we are keen to work with partners to ensure women and girls are equipped to benefit from and contribute to the fourth industrial and digital revolutions.

This is important because when women and girls are excluded from the information society, efforts to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment are severely impacted, with women and girls further lagging behind in modern education; and being less competitive in the 21st century labour market.

We have a big challenge in engaging women in the information society

We need to ensure women’s and girls’ full inclusion, contribution and leadership in the 21st century information society.

Global challenges require global solutions.

UN Women is working with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). We have developed an Action Plan to Close the Digital Gender Gap. This is an initiative under EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age.

EQUALS will address some of the key challenges by promoting:

Women’s and girls’ full access to ICTs, including digital devices and services.

To ensure their full access, we also need to address potential threats that ICTs pose, such as cyber-related violence, harassment and online insecurity.

Women’s and girls’ learning of 21st Century ICT and digital skills so they can proficiently use ICTs in both their private and professional lives.

To ensure that women can become producers and creators of ICT and relevant content for the digital world, EQUALS will act as a market place to connect women job seekers with vocational skills providers and employers demanding digital/STEM.

At UN Women, we are developing a Virtual Skills School that will be linked to this pillar of EQUALS. Fostering enterprise development under EQUALS will expose women beneficiaries to e-commerce opportunities.

This free virtual learning platform, We Learn, is meant to deliver skills development pathways that ensure that no woman or girl is left behind.

The platform will deliver high-quality education and training that supports young women and girls to acquire critical 21st century digital, technical, professional and life skills, bringing innovative learning methods and knowledge to the most disadvantaged. Entrepreneurship, financial and digital literacy, procurement and trade are some of the courses that will be offered on UN Women’s We Learn platform.

UN Women is also working with close partnership with the Government of Rwanda and the World Food Programme to pilot the Buy from Women Enterprise Platform. This is a mobile enabled supply chain system to connect women farmers to information, finance and markets.

Strategic partnerships are critical to address structural impediments women face to fully benefit from the E-commerce

Access to finance. While E-commerce cuts down on certain costs such as maintaining a physical store-front, capital requirements persist, from start-up to expansion, and to mitigate risks in the management. For women, this requirement is particularly challenging. CSW61 Agreed Conclusions called for encouraging and facilitating women’s entrepreneurship, including by improving access to financing and investment opportunities, tools of trade, business development and training, and the increase of women’s share in trade and procurement.

Lack of sex disaggregated data. With improved data, disaggregated by sex and other factors, we would be able to both monitor progress in addressing issues and design policies and programmes to unleash women’s potential and make progress towards the realization of the SDGs.

It is critical for governments to involve women innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors in policy-making around E-commerce. Given the broad range of issues faced by women facing multiple forms of discrimination extra effort must be made to engage rural and urban women; young and old; and others to ensure no one is left behind.

I would like to emphasize that ensuring access to technology for women cannot happen with active engagement with the private sector. Governments should foster linkages between multinational companies and the domestic private sector to facilitate technology development and transfer, on mutually agreed terms, of knowledge and skills, but governments must also ensure that private sector actors operate in a socially responsible manner.

The Women's Economic Empowerment Principles of UN Women and the Global Compact offer useful tools for private sector engagement to promote women's economic empowerment.

I thank you