As we celebrate International Women's Day, which focuses this year on “DigitALL: Innovation, Technology for Women’s Empowerment”, I wish to reflect on the role that digital education plays in fostering gender equality.

Having worked in the UN system for over 25 years in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, I have seen first-hand how innovation and technology are critical drivers for women's empowerment. What I am personally most proud of, however, is my work at the United Nations System Staff College, where we have helped empower women by:  

  • promoting online programmes conducive to women learners; and  

  • integrating gender equality and the empowerment of women into course content  

Together they have impacted the lives of many women and girls.  

Let me tell you how – in three steps.  

  1. Online programmes conducive to women learners 

In 2020, the pandemic restrictions forced the College to move 100 per cent into online education. While we are now back to face-to-face learning, the share of online activities is about three-quarters of the total. Since 2020, the expansion of online learning has led to a five-fold increase in the number of participants in UNSSC activities, about half of those being women.  

Our flagship programme, Leadership, Women and the UN (LWUN), has been harnessing the myriad possibilities of digital technology by offering a well-rounded leadership programme to senior women leaders in the UN system – completely online. 

At the same time, in the field, to facilitate Somalian women and youth's meaningful inclusion in reconciliation processes, the Peer Learning Programme of the Peace and Security Hub has taken a blended approach, providing online spaces as well as face-to-face sessions for collaborative learning, networking and the sharing of best practices, thus improving the legitimacy, sustainability and impact of the UN’s work.

  1. Integrating gender equality and the empowerment of women into course content 

Apart from online learning, our course content and formats are supporting the empowerment of women. Gender equality and the empowerment of women are integrated either as primary objective or significant objectives in the College’s learning programmes and mainstreamed across other dimensions of its operation. Some 48 courses out of 207 courses last year included modules mainstreaming gender. 

In the area of governance, our courses share the latest research on how poor governance and corruption disproportionately affect women as they are the ones most often seeking basic services in health, education and social protection. We share knowledge and practical examples of programme design that allows for more equal representation of all genders in decision-making processes for sustainable development. 

Another course, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as a Development Agenda, explicitly explores the gendered nature of climate impacts and vulnerability and the importance of gender-balanced solutions. Webinars on the Circular Economy and the 2030 Agenda also recognize the key role of women as repositories and transmitters of indigenous knowledge, knowledge that we are increasingly recognizing as perhaps the source of inspiration for modern societies to refashion their relationship with the natural world. 

Many of our learning formats also promote gender equality. For example, we commit to avoiding manels, where only male experts are featured, and we actively seek the engagement of female faculty from all over the world. Beyond equal numbers, women’s empowerment also means that we use methods that counter stereotypical behaviours, such as ‘mansplaining’, the explanation of something by a man in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.  

Women are a valuable and important audience for digital learning platforms, and it is crucial that these platforms are designed to meet their specific needs. For instance, women may face barriers such as limited access to technologytime constraints due to domestic responsibilities, and higher cognitive labour. It is important to recognize these challenges when designing learning content and platforms. By having an understanding and recognition of the gender gap in digital and tech skills when designing learning activities, we can consider women’s needs in their learning processes, which can help them build the right knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today's digital world. 

  1. The result? Tangible impact for women and girls 

In a number of ways, our approach to digital education and our emphasis on gendered perspectives has led to results and impact for women and girls. 

For example, our practice of integrating behavioural change in programmes for junior and mid-level managers in the UN enables and inspires transformational change as well as contributes to fast-tracking women staff members' entrance into more senior leadership positions in the UN. The success stories from participants reflect the enabling role of digital innovation and technology in learning and development, and the critical role it is increasingly playing in shrinking the gap in access to knowledge and best practices. 

Furthermore, our programmes and platforms provide a space for women to connect with each other and build a sense of community. These connections can lead to mentorship opportunities which can be crucial for women seeking to advance the achievement of the 2030 Agenda as well as their career paths in the field of sustainability. 

A number of our women learners have gone on to develop projects on innovation and technology that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. For example, one woman participant in our programmes launched a Safe Delivery App, a smartphone application that provides skilled birth attendants with direct and instant access to evidence-based and up-to-date clinical guidelines on COVID-19 in pregnancy, infection prevention and control, and basic emergency obstetric and neonatal care. Another woman learner went on to revamp  “Minasaty”, an online youth platform for the Arab Region. Furthermore, one of our female participants developed a menstrual health and capacity building digital platform.  

Building a future of gender equality 

My main message for International Women's Day is that we are working to ensure our programmes reflect the principles of gender equality, both in their accessibility and content. I am committed to ensuring that our learning programmes lead to impact for women, today and into the future.