The digital economy has never been stronger. Above all, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to adopt technology in our everyday life and conducting contactless transactions starkly clear. Digital connectivity has become important not only for the economy and education but also it has become circular for social issues and accessing vital information, products, and services such as those related to health during this crisis. (World Bank, 2021).
Within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the essential components for a prosperous digital future are readily available since the region boasts a sizable and well-educated youth who enthusiastically adopted new digital and mobile technologies on a broad scale. Additionally, the region possesses a highly educated female population, offering immense potential for driving future growth and job creation. Consequently, it becomes imperative for MENA countries to evolve into “learning societies” to meet the evolving demands of the digital economy (World Bank, 2021).
Gender Equality in Education:
Over the last few decades, MENA countries have made substantial strides towards achieving gender equality in education. Completion rates for lower secondary education are nearly equal for both girls and boys in MENA, closely mirroring global rates (females: 77.3 percent, males: 76.7 percent) (World Bank Data). Notably, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have successfully closed gender gaps in primary education. Regarding secondary education, countries like the UAE, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Tunisia have achieved gender parity, noting that Jordan and Lebanon having lower overall enrolment rates. In tertiary education, all nations in the region managed to eliminate gender disparities (WEF, 2022).
Gender Equality in Labor Force Participation:
Despite advancements in education, gender equality in labor force participation remains a critical concern for women in the MENA region. The gender gap in economic participation has marginally increased from 44 percent to 46 percent in MENA during 2022. Kuwait and Jordan lead the regional rankings in this regard, while Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt came at the lower end of the spectrum.
Skills Gap in the Digital Economy:
In the digital economy, skills have become the currency of success. The demand for digital jobs has expanded 2-3 times faster than traditional work between 2010 and 2016 (International Labor Office). The sharing economy’s exponential growth underscores the value of digital skills, with an expected growth rate of over 25 percent by 2030 (P. Robert, 2016). With regard to the MENA region, the digital economy accounts for a mere 4 percent of GDP, significantly below the global average of 22 percent (World Bank, 2021).
Investing in Digital Skills:
To thrive in the digital age, the MENA region countries must invest in a robust education system that equips individuals with essential soft skills such as problem-solving, ICT proficiency, self-organization, and creativity. Unlike traditional roles that require basic literacy and numeracy, the digital economy demands a broader skill set. Failing to bridge such skills gap could leave a significant portion of the workforce behind in a digitally intensive labor market (OECD, 2018).
National Strategies and Gender Balance
Countries in the MENA region implemented numerous digitalization and artificial intelligence strategies and policies to address the skills gap. However, many of these strategies have overlooked the importance of gender balance. For instance, the United Arab Emirates has developed comprehensive policies to equip the young generation with the skills required for future challenges, including the adoption of advanced skills and digital economy strategies. Moving to Jordan, the kingdom has expanded its portfolio to include the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship and has developed strategies and policies for artificial intelligence. Egypt has also launched the ICT Sustainable Development Strategy 2030 and the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy. While these strategies focus on digital economy and artificial intelligence, addressing gender balance in this area remains a crucial aspect that needs attention.
In conclusion, achieving gender equality in digital skills and ensuring that women are active participants in the digital economy is essential for the MENA region’s sustainable growth and prosperity. National strategies should prioritize gender balance to harness the full potential of the region’s highly educated female population and bridge the skills gap in the digital era.