THE BLOG

Why We Need More Girls in ICT

28/04/2016 12:07

We're living in an age of transformative technological change, with ever-accelerating innovations which impact every aspect of our lives. How we manage these changes, and the way they shape and impact our society now and in years to come are fundamentally political decisions. So how do we ensure that more and more citizens are included and have access to these technologies? How do we guarantee that all of our rights are protected online today and in the future? How do we use emerging technologies to bring about a more equal and socially just world? We need answers to these questions, and that is why it is so important to stimulate meaningful democratic debate on technology, especially on International Girls in ICT Day, which took place on April 28th.

For many generations, our societies built up stereotypes about what girls and women could and could not do, and sadly, to this day, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) is often an area that excludes women. This is why talking about girls in ICT is so crucially important. In fact, the European Parliament adopted a report on Empowering Women in ICT to mark the occasion, setting out a comprehensive strategy for the EU to follow.

The gender gap in the ICT industry is staggering: only 9% of software or web developers in the EU are women, as are only 19% of directors or managers of ICT companies, or 19% of ICT entrepreneurs. Of the women who are in the sector, 54% occupy low-paid, low-skilled jobs. However, perhaps the most worrying gap is in education. When we see that 20% of all higher-education degrees are in the ICT, and know that only 3% are female graduates we know that action is required to redress the imbalance. If one uses this data to forecast future trends in an industry that will increasingly shape more and more aspects of our lives, our societies, and our culture, you will see that drastic action is needed now in order to tackle potential inequality. Gender equality for the digital age is paramount, and for that to be achieved, more women and girls need to enter the STEM sectors.

This is not just a matter of gross social injustice and structural exclusion, there are also economic considerations to be taken into account. Every year in Europe there are 120,000 new ICT jobs created much faster than they are filled. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 900,000 unfilled ICT jobs across the EU. We simply need more people in the sector, and this means that excluding women and girls will have an economic cost.

On the other hand, digital technology provides for wonderful opportunities to overcome many of the obstacles or instances of discrimination that may have previously hindered and thwarted women at the workplace. Online technologies have provided for much more flexible company organisations, with work being done home or abroad. Parents of all genders now have the possibility of taking care of children or other dependants, and may be able to create a healthy work and life balance. The opportunities of e-democracy in companies, or the growth of alternative business models like cooperatives in the ICT sector, have meant that employees, including women, are more likely to participate in and have a stake in business decisions. Online training and education also allows for opportunities of upskilling and reskilling by employees, and expands the possibilities for rewarding life-long learning opportunities. If we make the right decisions going forward, we can use these innovations to create much more diverse, balanced, and fair workplaces, which will also be more productive and creative.

There are many concrete and substantial steps to take in order to enable more women and girls to enter the field. First of all we need a change of narrative, and to expose young women and girls to role models in the STEM fields, and give them the message that they too could have a bright future in the tech world. In the 21st century, all children should receive ICT education, in school and outside of school. Coding summer-camps and tournaments, for example, are a great way to open up the world of computers to children and young people, and an opportunity to enable girls to get in early, develop their talents and leave the stereotypes behind.

At secondary and higher education levels, we need more extra-curricular and non-formal education programmes, with more emphasis placed on women and girls' participation. Funding opportunities, like grants, bursaries and scholarships for young women in STEM and ICT fields, is important. And once in the field, young students and professionals need opportunities for networking and mentorship - this can be very effective at a European level.

At a later stage in their careers, women in other industries who need to re-train in order to stay in the labour market, must have programmes available to them to learn ICT skills, so as to make themselves a new career path.

One of the most important ways of getting more girls and women into ICT and STEM, is by exploiting the enormous crossover potential between STEM subjects and the arts and creative industries. From product design, to graphic design, web and app development, computer games, film and animation, in the age of the meme artists and designers are finding jobs they would not have previously come across. The combination of the arts with STEM is a driver of innovation, and it is something I often talk about as a creative practitioner and policy professional. In education jargon we always talk about STEM, but it is time to add in the arts and turn STEM into STEAM.

One of the differences between the fields is that while STEM suffers from a severe underrepresentation of women, they are sharply overrepresented in the arts and creative industries. Building more bridges between the two is a way of making both sides more equal, equitable, and diverse.

The EU does not have the power to affect statutory education, or to impact school curricula. However, it is able to share best practice among Member States, and provide European funds to promote education and labour programmes with a gender emphasis. From Erasmus+ to the European Globalisation Fund, or the European Social fund and Horizon 2020 - all these are names of money-pots that the European Commission could draw upon to fund programmes that enable women and girls to go into the tech sectors. Civil society organisations, local authorities, universities and social enterprises are all entitled to apply for these funds for tailored programmes. European efforts would then be matched by national efforts, to achieve these same goals. All these need to be woven into the overall EU plan of a Digital Single Market, a package of far-reaching legislation intended to allow the EU as a whole to make use of its size and lead the way as a technology innovator.

We policy makers who believe in a social and inclusive Europe are here to make sure that the strategy is not just focused on markets, but also on society. We know that the inclusion of women entails enormous economic benefits, but we want to make sure to address social exclusion, political dilemmas of structural gender inequalities, cultural perceptions, and strive towards a world which is more just and fair. We need a technology sector which is innovative and creative through its inclusivity, diversity and gender equality, and that is why we need to be empower more and more women and girls in ICT.

Some years ago, before I entered politics, I was commissioned to write a short story about women in science and engineering. Using culture and arts to reshape our discourse, and breakdown stereotypes, and work for gender equality has always been an important part of my work. You can see some of it here.

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