Digital identity and women in business: how can we level the playing field?


As the digital age rapidly transforms the way that we do business, female entrepreneurs in particular must confront a new set of challenges. In addition to the familiar obstacles that include accessing capital, finding investment opportunities, developing professional networks and acquiring seats at the business table, women entrepreneurs are compelled to navigate the online business world. While digital business offers exciting new pathways for female entrepreneurs, it also highlights the unique difficulties that women face in starting and maintaining successful businesses in the twenty-first century.

At the Reykjavik Global Forum 2019, moderator Alessandra Galloni, Global Managing Editor at Reuters, underscored both the transformative capability of the digital age for women entrepreneurs, as well as the potential detrimental effects, in the session “Is Digital a Yellow Click Road to a New Business Oz?.”

On a positive note, Shandana Gulzar Khan, Member of the Parliament of Pakistan and Chairperson of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, noted the flexibility that digital business offers women both in education and in creating a workplace that suits their needs. “Many women want to be entrepreneurs, but they don’t know the first thing,” she observed. “For us transforming the business place has been less about legalities and more about logistics.”

In Gulzar Khan’s native country of Pakistan, the internet has offered innovative solutions that are allowing some women to define where, when and how they work. Instead of being forced to  choose work over other obligations or lifestyle preferences, women can access digital training, education and business opportunities through the use of digital tools and government help.

Another example of the digital age benefitting women was given by Ann Cairns, Vice Chairman of Mastercard. To help women entrepreneurs in Africa access a level playing field, Mastercard digitised their business supply chain, which allowed the women to forego unnecessary bank loans. In turn, an immediate improvement was noticed resulting in a 20% increase in profit over a period of several months.

Despite these promising examples, there are other areas of the digital business that may act as roadblocks for women. As Ann Cairns pointed out, the very same region where digitising business proved successful for women is a region where a lack of digital identity, including biometric data or a passport, could disproportionately prevent women from entering into entrepreneurship at all, let alone online. “You can’t have the internet of everything without the inclusion of everyone,” she maintained.

Joanna Santinon, Chair of EY’s Women’s Network, reaffirmed the importance of having a digital identity in building a business, “If you don’t have a digital identity, how are you actually going to get off the ground and build a business? Because without a digital identity, you don’t get a big bank account, so for an entrepreneur that’s catastrophic.”

Santinon noted that in addition to having a digital identity that will help open doors, a key to improving women’s chances of becoming successful entrepreneurs relies on the investor audience. Because this audience is predominantly male, it is often difficult to access funding for ideas that women are passionate about. She pointed out that “only 1-5% of all venture capitalist money ends up in the hands of female business.”

So, what do our panelists hope to see in the future for female entrepreneurs? A more level playing field for women to enter into business, especially small to medium enterprises, which is where women business owners tend to fall, universal access to digital identity and government policies that cultivate skills in partnership with the private sector.