“My studies stopped when I was in year eight. At that time, my father felt there was no need to educate girls because they only have to manage a house when they grow up.” These are the words of Gunjan, a girl from one of Delhi’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, describing a moment in her life when the future looked very bleak.
Fortunately for Gunjan, she turned things around when she was able to gain access to a digital learning centre set up by Plan International and Ericsson. She had the chance to study science, maths and build her confidence. Her father was so impressed with her progress he said: “I am sure she will be able to fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher.”
Gunjan’s story shows the transformative power of technology to unlock the potential of girls. Yet, the sad reality is Gunjan’s experience is not shared by all. If you are female, you are 12 per cent less likely to have access to the internet than if you are male, and 10 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone. Girls are also five times less likely to consider a career in tech than boys. In a world where almost one third of all jobs could be automated by 2030 and digital skills will become even more vital to succeed at work, girls are in big danger of being left behind by a global digital revolution that could encode entrenched gender inequality far off into the future.
Girls face some big social, cultural and legal barriers to pursuing a digital career. These barriers are not limited to any one country or context and are driven by deeply held views about the role of girls in society that are now negatively impacting their chances in the digital world. That’s why you see a situation in Silicon Valley where 60 per cent of women experience sexual harassment. Why in Arab countries, which have more women science, technology, engineering, and maths graduates than US and European universities, so many young women still stay at home once school ends. Why in China, so many technology companies still explicitly state during the recruitment process that certain positions are just for men.
We must break these barriers down for girls, before it’s too late. It’s time for community, political and business leaders the world over to step up. To challenge and eventually end the poisonous perception that technology is not for girls. To put new laws, policies and infrastructure in place to ensure girls get the education, training, and access to good jobs they need to succeed in the digital economy. To help girls also get ready to lead through mentoring programmes to support and empower them. It is not good enough for girls to just get access to the digital revolution, they need to be driving it too. Turning start-ups into global tech giants and redefining the worlds digital future to be a more equal one than it is today.
Luckily, there is a lot of good work going on already. A new global report just published by Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) - Digital Jobs for Youth: Young Women in the Digital Economy gives cause for hope and shows just how big the global digital opportunity is for girls. The challenge, however, is will governments and business move fast enough. The digital revolution moves at near light speed, so without decisive action now, it might turn out to be no more than a giant leap backwards for gender equality.