Women in ICT: Entering a Forbidden Space
May 8, 2019
Traveling last year in Mongolia’s Arkhangai Province, I joined a party climbing the Shireet Ulaan Uul, a rocky, forested mountain that rises to 2,600 meters from the ridges west of the Orkhon River. At the top of this peak, in 1684, the revered monk and polymath Zanabazar founded the Tovkhon Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. As we approached the summit, our guide gave us a quiet warning: the women should not climb to the top; the sacred pilgrimage site was reserved for men.
My work introducing Mongolian women entrepreneurs to information and communications technology (ICT) often brings to mind my experience near the summit and this remote, historic monastery with its lingering taboo, because of a more modern taboo—that ICT in Mongolia is only for men.
Paradoxically, the World Economic Forum in 2018 ranked Mongolia third best among all Asian countries in gender equality, after the Philippines and Bangladesh, and multiple studies have noted Mongolia’s “reverse gender gap” in tertiary education, where female university enrollment exceeds male enrollment by a ratio of 1.43 to 1. Mongolia’s score on the World Bank’s Global Gender Gap Index is a better-than-middling 0.71, where 1 represents perfect gender equality and 0 represents complete inequality, and the ratio of female to male labor-force participation is a near-median 0.81, 75th of 149 countries surveyed.
On the other hand, men still dominate top management in the public and private sectors. Women hold just 17.1 percent of seats in parliament and 36.7 percent of management posts in business. And despite their disproportionate college enrollment, just 1.4 percent of women take degrees in ICT, compared to 5.4 percent of men. As Mongolia, like many other countries, lacks sex-disaggregated statistics on ICT employment, there are no studies that have tracked how many of these women eventually pursue an ICT career, but we can assume it is fewer than the number who graduate.
The Asia Foundation has recently launched an effort to bridge this gap between women and ICT in Mongolia. Working with a new partner, Korean IT company SOLUTEK Systems, Inc., and with continued support from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), the Foundation is integrating ICT into the second phase of its successful Women’s Business Center and Incubator (WBC) project.
As we have written here in the past, the WBC has been a stand-out success in its three years of operation, with a growing base of more than 3,300 registered clients, an ongoing training and support program that has reached 7,500 small businesswomen, and an intensive business incubator that has produced 43 graduates. Significantly, most of these incubated businesses had previously been unregistered in order to dodge government regulations. The incubator increased the number of registered, taxpaying businesses in this group from eight to 37.
Beyond the numbers, the WBC has helped clients change their lives. In a survey concluding phase one of the project, clients spoke of discovering their own talent for business, gaining self-confidence, feeling supported and connected within the WBC community, and, most importantly, successfully building their own independent enterprises.
The second phase of the WBC project, with its emphasis on ICT, kicked off in November 2018. Since then, it has provided practical ICT training to more than 200 businesswomen on essential computer and online business skills. Equipping women entrepreneurs for the e-commerce era is crucial in Mongolia, where more than 80 percent of the population has internet access and many have already started buying and selling on Facebook. The WBC is also expanding its e-commerce platform to allow Mongolian businesswomen to reach international markets.
Phase two of the WBC also includes changes to the business incubator to support women who are running IT startups, including opportunities to pitch their ideas at startup events in Korea; a fund for developers, engineers, and office space; intellectual property support; and mentorships with successful IT businesses. Four women CEOs are currently enrolled, with businesses that vary from an online marketing service for restaurants—a new concept in Mongolia—to an online sales platform for handicrafts, which already has 40 sellers and over 1,000 customers.
Small and medium enterprises of all kinds are a vital part of Mongolia’s economic future. In a nation still overwhelmingly dependent on extractive industries, equipping women entrepreneurs with the latest ICT tools for marketing, sales, and business management is an important step towards a more balanced economy. It is also a step towards a more gender-equal Mongolia, opening the path, if you like, to that mountain peak where women were not allowed in the past.
Soomin Jun is a program specialist for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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