Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says women have been severely disadvantaged during the global Covid-19 pandemic - and that they are also the key to ensure economic recovery.
During the first virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders Meeting held in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon, the long-time executive of said economic success and recovery would be with organisations that invest in digital tools and "empower women".
"It is so important that Apec has put women at the heart of its agenda to advance economic empowerment," Sandberg said during her address.
"Huge gender gaps have existed for as long as anyone can remember, but women have also been disproportionately impacted by the global pandemic; they are more likely to have more responsibilities of caring for others, more likely to lose their jobs or have their pay cut, and more likely to feel stressed or anxious.
"Inclusive economic empowerment means investing in digital programmes, developing online education and improving connectivity for people in remote communities, and it means empowering women.
"By protecting and enhancing the open internet and creating the conditions for strong and inclusive recovery, I am confident that we can build a thriving digital economy that will power Asia-Pacific for years to come."
Sandberg said small and medium-sized businesses were the "heartbeat" of Apec economies, accounting for 40 to 60 per cent of global domestic product, and more than 200 million businesses had been using Facebook and Instagram each month to create "virtual store fronts and communicate with customers" during the pandemic.
Digitalisation had enabled businesses to stay afloat and adapt over the challenging year, and was the necessary path for businesses to move forward. E-commerce fuelled by data-driven tools was important for economic recovery efforts, particularly for SMEs, she said.
"The pandemic has proved the value of connection, cooperation of cross-borders and the economic opportunity created by an open and accessible internet," she said.
"Ministers from Apec economies have talked about the importance of digitalisation in building the resilience of small businesses, co-operating to ensure the flow of data and strengthening consumer trust and digital transactions."
But she warned that a number of countries has begun to "build digital walls around their citizens" which posed the risk of harming business activity and stalling economic growth throughout the Asia-Pacific period.
According to the Deloitte NZ Digital Tools SME Survey conducted in August, 38 per cent of SMEs in this country have started using, or have increased their usage, of social media platforms to make sales since the onset of coronavirus earlier this year.
A further 47 per cent said they expected their usage of digital tools to communicate with customers to increase further even once the pandemic is over.
Of the firms that having been using social media platforms to attract more customers, 72 per cent said they had been doing so on Facebook, 44 per cent said Instagram and 24 per cent said they had been doing so on Whatsapp.
Twenty-six per cent of SMEs surveyed said lack of knowledge or skills was a barrier to using digital tools for business activity, while 25 per cent reported the biggest barrier to be time and 23 per cent said budget was the reason.