Recently I had the pleasure to participate in a Google hangout to discuss how we can best empower young women through technology, a topic which is top of the ITU agenda and one to which I am personally very committed. Geena Davis, who relentlessly champions gender equality in the media and is also the ITU’s Special Envoy for Women and Girls in ICTs, was one of the several panelists gathered together by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Other panelists included Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth; Stacy Martinet from Mashable; and Ms. Blair Christie, Senior Vice-President, Government Affairs & Global Corporate Communications of Cisco.
Leading the discussion was Gary Fowlie, Head of the liaison office of ITU in New York who led by asking us what actions can be taken by big actors – such as governments and large corporations – to address the gender divide in ICTs?
I think a great deal can be done by both governments and private industry to address the imbalance in terms of access to technology, and also the imbalance in terms of female participation in the ICT workforce. Thanks to people such as Geena and more recently Ahmed, there is more attention on this issue than ever before.
On the workforce participation side, ITU is working with its members to raise awareness at all levels – governments, industry and educators – and of course girls themselves. We have an annual Girls in ICT Day, held every year on the 4th Thursday of April, which aims to inspire girls and young women to take up a tech career. Last year, we recorded 1,300 events in 90 countries. This time we’ve registered over 1,500 events in over 120 countries – including a hearing at the European Parliament hosted by European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes.
In addition, ITU private sector members like Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, Nokia and others are putting a lot of effort into this area, with tech camps, awareness building activities, mentoring programmes, and shadowing days.
I think it might surprise many to learn that when large mainframe computers were first invented, it was young women who did the programming. And when computer science courses first appeared on university scene in the late 1970’s, the proportion of young men and women taking these courses was about 50:50. Today, it’s closer to 80:20.
And that’s what we want to change – and I’m optimistic that, with so much momentum gathering, we are already on our way to turning this around.
The role of governments setting up enabling environments was stressed by Ahmed and the convening power of ITU, which is made up of 193 Member States (plus some 700 Private Sector members) can be brought to bear to bring about lasting and positive change.
On the access side, governments have a key role to play. Greater inclusion means growth in GDP because greater access is linked to a country’s overall development. Intel estimates that global GDP could be increased by up to USD 18 billion, just by bringing 600 million additional women and girls online.
But it goes much broader than that. Greater inclusion means better education, greater inclusion means better healthcare. A growing number of countries are including gender as a key component of their National Broadband Plans. The most recent example is Nigeria, who just recently approved their plan, which includes promoting access and incentives for training women to use the internet.
In that area of empowering women through ICT training, my own organization has a long-standing partnership with the NGO telecentre.org, and we are on track to train one million women in elementary ICT skills. As was mentioned several times during the hang out, the workforce must reflect community.
One inspiring example is the case of Myrna Padilla, a Filipina who went from working abroad as a domestic helper to running her own graphic design business back home, employing dozens of staff. And as a result her kids have choices and opportunities that she never had.
Gender divides go deeper than just a problem in ICT access. ITU statistics show that there are currently 200 million fewer women online. But the reality is that even once a girl or woman makes it online, there is evidence that the content she may encounter contains an inherent gender bias.
Geena spoke about the vital importance of positive role models, and how little girls find it difficult to identify inspiring female characters in popular TV shows. Well, evidence suggests that online content is no better, and in some cases, may be much worse. This is another important area that needs to be addressed. We want girls to grow up happy, and proud of themselves, celebrating their talents, rather than feeling like ‘second class’ citizens.
Today we know about the Margaret Thatchers and Sheryl Sandbergs of this world precisely because they are the exceptions, as rare women at the top of their professions. I look forward to a day where we celebrate women because of their capabilities, rather than because of they are the exception to the rule.
Ultimately, with world leaders now engaged in debate around the post-2015 development agenda, we need to make sure that the role of technology to empower women and girls is clearly recognized and prioritized.