That’s a complicated question. But for me, we should for starters ensure that we’re not excluding 50% of the population, and that girls and women do not feel the world of ICT careers is closed off to them.
That’s why I invited an impressive and wide-ranging group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and other experts, to discuss what can be done to promote ICT careers to women. I don’t want to reduce the whole issue to stereotypes. But I do know that the current situation is extremely unbalanced, with girls woefully underrepresented, in both the ICT workforce and the fields of study which feed into it.
I want to get “girl power” into ICT and technology – and by “girls” I don’t just mean the young, but also the young at heart! And I want to avoid a situation where we neglect half of the population and then can’t find the ICT workers we need 10 years from now.
We began with some great words from Martha Lane Fox. Martha is the co-founder of the immensely successful lastminute.com, and many other websites, and is now the UK’s “digital champion”.
She told us how she approaches her current task of getting everyone in the UK online and “digitally included” – given that 9 million Britons have never used the Internet. To do that, she works with those in central government, and with teachers and education experts. But she also emphasised the importance of working at the grassroots to build digital capacity from the bottom up. And she had some heart-warming stories of how getting online has helped those people most at risk of social exclusion – like refugees and those with mental health issues. It’s helped them improve their involvement in society—and their access to economic opportunity.
And we also heard from Annie Chen, a software engineer for Google in Switzerland, who shared her story of how she got into this sector (and how much she’s got out of it); Cheryl Miller, Europe Director of the brilliant Green Light for Girls initiative which organises events around the world to promote science, technology, engineering and maths to girls of all ages and backgrounds; and Anneke Burger-Tebbens Torringa, a senior IT manager from the Netherlands, who has written extensively about ICT careers.
Our discussion was a rich one – with MEPs of 16 different nationalities and many diverse experiences presenting their perspectives. The problem is not consistent across the continent (Romania and Portugal lead the EU in women scientists, for example); but the perception is certainly that the EU trails the US in this area, with companies like Google, Facebook and HP all having female staff in senior positions, if not in charge.
I am clear that women have the ability to succeed in this sector. For example, content production is an important part of the Internet ecosystem. This creative discipline is something women are strong in, when it comes to “traditional” sectors like cinema; there’s no reason why that success shouldn’t translate into modern equivalents like computer game design. Likewise ICT offers real opportunities for women – like the ability for “stay-at-home mums” to set up businesses over the Internet. So if there are barriers I’m determined to get to the bottom of them. Maybe those barriers aren’t overt – though Martha had some fairly shocking stories of sexist attitudes which I hope are now confined to the past – but in any case, we need to do something about them.
The school environment is vital in this. Did you know, for example, that girls who go to all-female schools more likely to study STEM subjects (science, tech, engineering and maths) than those who go to a mixed school? And just last week I visited Our Lady of Nazareth school in Nairobi, where early access to computers has opened up new work horizons for the boys and girls – who wanted to be not just ICT experts, but also pilots, judges and more. Indeed, here in the EU, some of the MEPs already had some positive experiences of going into schools and “spreading the word”.
Now I’m keen to explore what more we can do to reduce barriers for girls and young women. Some MEPs were keen to push this issue further with a debate, or possibly a resolution, in the European Parliament. And personally I think that all EU countries could learn a lot from the UK’s lead, and appoint their own Digital Champions to do what Martha’s been doing. In that way each member state could focus on those people currently excluded – and really get every European Digital.