Nº 3 2012 > Technology needs girls
A bright future in ICT opportunities for a new generation of women
The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human capital and talent — the skills, education and productivity of its workforce. Women account for one-half of the potential talent base throughout the world, according to ITU’s new report “A bright future in ICT — opportunities for a new generation of women”.
Closing the male-female employment gap is good for economic growth. Research indicates that narrowing this gap has been an important driver of Europe’s economic growth over the past decade. The costs of not doing so are huge. In Asia and the Pacific, for example, restricting job opportunities for women is costing the region between USD 42 and USD 46 billion a year. World Bank findings demonstrate that similar restrictions have imposed massive costs throughout the Arab States region, where the gender gap in economic opportunity remains the widest in the world today. The World Economic Forum reveals that, regardless of their income level, countries that divide resources equitably between women and men fare better than those that do not.
Advantages of attracting women and girls to careers in ICT
In most countries, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector is still perceived as a male industry. Men hold most of the top jobs, while women are over-represented in lower level ICT occupations. This is true in both developed and developing countries. On average, women account for 30 per cent of information technology (IT) technicians, a mere 15 per cent of ICT managers, and only 11 per cent of IT strategy and planning professionals. Few women hold leadership positions at board and senior management levels.
Engaging women and girls in high-flying ICT careers is not only the right thing to do from the point of social justice; it is also smart economics. Gender diversity in high-value ICT jobs in both management and on the boards of companies is good for business performance. Studies exploring the link between women in leadership positions and business performance have shown a direct positive correlation between gender diversity on top leadership teams and a company’s financial results. More diverse teams make better informed decisions, leading to less risk-taking and more successful outcomes. Over time, therefore, a nation’s ICT competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and employs women.
Sending the right signals
Governments are increasingly recognizing the importance of taking steps to support girls and women in ICT, and a range of initiatives is already under way. But the ICT sector needs to invest more resources in human capital development and in creating an enabling environment for girls and women.
The choices made by policy-makers, enterprises and individuals on investment in education and training must strive to give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men. Business leaders and policy-makers need to work together towards removing barriers to women’s entry to the ICT workforce, putting in place practices and policies that will provide equal opportunities for rising to positions of leadership within the ICT sector. Such practices will ensure that all existing resources are used in the most efficient manner, and that the right signals are sent regarding the future flow of talent.
Here is what an ICT industry managing director in Australia says: “As I write this, it is school holidays in Australia and I have one of my daughters here with me at work. To me that’s one of the great aspects about being a female working at Microsoft: it’s a company that supports my needs as a working mum. In the bigger picture, the ICT industry is one where you can bring your personal ambition and passions together with an industry to make a huge difference in the world. It also offers independence and economic freedom for women to go anywhere and do anything”.
The European Commission has predicted a skills gap of more than half a million ICT jobs in Europe. Brazil expects to run short of about 200 000 professionally trained ICT workers by 2013. The opportunities are there for women to make ICT careers.
Indian women flock to ICT jobs
In India, women’s representation in the technical fields is growing. India’s ICT sector plays a pivotal role in bridging the gender divide in the country’s workforce by helping to overcome biases against women and girls, especially those from rural or uneducated backgrounds. With women comprising 31 per cent of the ICT workforce in 2009, the Indian ICT sector has achieved one of the highest gender ratios in the region. Girls and women are encouraged to take up training courses in computer and ICT engineering.
Supporting women in science in the Republic of Korea
The Republic of Korea’s Women in Science and Technology policy was implemented between 2004 and 2008. The 2nd Basic Plan (2009–2013), currently being implemented, includes establishing one national and four regional organizations under the umbrella title of the Institute for Supporting Women in Science and Technology. The Act on the Promotion of the Economic Activities of Career-Break Women was enacted in response to a 2008 report that the participation rate of women aged over 30 years in economic activity was very low.
Women predominate in IT jobs in the Philippines
The Philippines is another important ICT player in Asia, and women account for about 65 per cent of the total professional and technical workers in IT services and IT‑enabled services.
Competition for science sponsorship in the Russian Federation
In the Russian Federation, women are in a minority in the ICT sector. Directing young talent to the sciences and ICT is being supported by the government, companies and academic institutions through such programmes as Step into the Future, which is funded by the Russian Government and championed by its president. The most visible and popular programmes are the many science and innovation contests and olympiads (for example, the All‑Siberia Student Olympiad), which offer scholarships and university admission to the winners. Young people also compete for grants for science projects, and for admission to summer camps dedicated to mathematics and science.
The few programmes that specifically target women in the ICT sector are offered by international corporations such as Microsoft and Cisco, or by international non-governmental organizations (for example, the IREX Tech Age Girls programme).
Skills shortages in Brazil
According to SOFTEX, the Brazilian association for the promotion and export of software, the Brazilian ICT sector now employs 600 000 people. It encountered a shortage of about 75 000 skilled professionals in 2010 and expects to run short of about 200 000 professionals by 2013.
Brazilian universities offer some 2000 IT‑related courses with around 300 000 students studying these subjects. User firms claim, however, that there is a mismatch between the calibre of ICT professionals graduating from these courses and the skills that companies require. Skills development in the ICT field is one of the pillars of Brasil Maior, which includes three flagship programmes for vocational and technical education: the National Program of Access to Technical Education and Employment (Pronatec); the National Engineering Plan; and the Science without Borders programme.
São Paulo is the technology hub of Brazil and many Brazilian women are finding jobs in the growing technology industry there. But participation by females in the male-dominated IT sector in Brazil has been decreasing over the past decades. The reasons for low female participation in IT are complex. According to interviews with ten women working in IT careers in São Paulo, IT jobs are appropriate for Brazilian women, but technical programmes and workplaces are mainly occupied by men. Brazilian women are expected to be primary caretakers of domestic responsibilities even when both partners work full time. And although women are considered to be better communicators, most top leadership positions in IT are held by men.
Argentina bets on educational opportunity to bring women into ICT jobs
In Argentina some 30 per cent of the students in technical secondary schools are girls. Whether they will pursue related university degrees and hold technical jobs in companies or the government remains to be seen. For that to happen, deliberate incentives and policies targeting women will need to be put in place. The hope is that equal opportunity in tertiary schooling in the field of science and technology will become a reality, and that it will eventually lead to equal employment prospects for girls in ICT industries.
The IT jobs that women tend to do are simple, such as ordering merchandise and recording inventory using a computer, or receiving orders via the Internet for home delivery of food. It remains a challenge to turn these experiences into a launching pad to establish women in the more sophisticated and better paying ICT-driven jobs.
Canada helps women aim for ICT careers
In Canada, the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) workshop in computer science targets women aged 15–16 years. The programme is designed to ignite enthusiasm for computer science in interested female students from across Canada. Young women learn that computer science is about much more than using and programming computers. Through lectures, labs and hands-on activities, the workshop explores the foundations and applications of computer science that have a profound effect on the world today. To attract young women, the programme also advertises other benefits, including the opportunity to make lasting friendships and enjoy social events.
The United States interests girls in computing
A study in the United States found that today’s generation of college-bound females appear to be less interested in computing than their male counterparts. Girls tend to associate computing with “typing, maths and boredom”, while boys are more likely to think of computing in terms of “video games, design, electronics, solving problems and interesting”. The same study found that girls were more interested in the computing field when they were given the message that “… with computing, you will be able to connect technology to your community and make a world of difference — reducing energy consumption, improving health care, enhancing security, reducing pollution and advancing learning and education.”
The University of Illinois Girls Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science is an annual week-long camp, designed to give academically talented high school aged girls an opportunity to explore exciting engineering and scientific fields through demonstrations, classroom presentations, hands-on activities, and contacts with women in these technical fields. The aim is to promote positive attitudes to mathematics and science among young students by exposing them to an interactive hands-on, socially relevant engineering curriculum that focuses on solving important problems of health, justice and protection of the environment.
In France a female ICT manager sets a quota for women
Explaining the potential benefits of a 35 per cent quota of female representation at all levels of management, Delphine Ernotte, Executive Director of Orange France, says “While women make up 35 per cent of our employees overall, we want to reach this proportion at every management level, in all departments. For instance, 20 per cent of our 300 executive positions are filled by women. This percentage is already high for a telecom company; however we are determined to push it to 35 per cent by 2015. This is why we’ve set up a Diversity Committee at executive level, which comes up with proposed solutions to improve recruitment policies, give equal access to training and career orientation, in addition to developing gender-friendly management practices”.
When asked how this would be achieved, Ms Ernotte’s response is “First, we need to make sure that there is a gender mix, beginning with the recruitment process. This is particularly critical for technical jobs, as we are competing with the whole industry to attract a scarce number of female graduates of technical studies. In that aim, we’ve set up partnerships with engineering schools so as to promote our career opportunities to young women, but also to work together towards bringing more girls into science classes. At this point, we can already notice a sort of bias against jobs with generally high responsibilities, driven by the fear of not being able to balance their professional and personal life. Our duty is to break these stereotypes and give a clearer picture of the diverse daily tasks in a telecom company. Second, management practices need to be adapted to different work styles. We are aware that women provide most of the family care in our society, a fact which compels them to have a different schedule than most men. Technology today enables us to adapt our working schedule to our other responsibilities; yet its usage is determined by the practices of each manager who can either put pressure on employees by setting up late calls/meetings, or set work rules that are adapted to them.”
In Germany, Deutsche Telekom wants more female managers
Deutsche Telekom, Germany’s leading telecommunication company has declared that 30 per cent of its middle and upper management jobs will be filled by women by 2015. Women made up 30 per cent of Deutsche Telekom’s staff and 13 per cent of the company’s top managers when the policy was introduced in 2011.
Geeks versus chicks — back to the 1960s?
“Women make up half the world’s population, they use technology as much as men, and they are innovative technical thinkers — so if we want the best technology that we can get, we need diversity at the design table”, says Lucy Sanders, CEO of the United States National Center for Women & Information Technology.
In the western world, right up to the 1960s, computer programming was perceived as a natural career choice for savvy young women. Cosmopolitan Magazine urged their fashionable female readership to consider careers in programming — describing the field as offering better job opportunities for women than many other professional careers. James Adams, then director of education for the Association for Computing Machinery commented: “I don’t know of any other field, outside of teaching, where there’s as much opportunity for a woman.”
Since that time, the image of a computer programmer in western countries has shifted to an archetypal computer “geek” — typically a socially-awkward male, a nocturnal creature passing sleepless nights writing computer code. According to workplace researchers, this stereotype of the lone male computer whiz is self-perpetuating, and it keeps the computer field overwhelmingly male. Not only do hiring managers tend to favour male applicants, but women themselves are less likely to pursue careers in a field where they feel like misfits and outsiders.
The earliest computer programmers were women and the programming field was once stereotyped as female. The ICT sector has changed radically since those early computing days. Now, in the era of the knowledge economy, communication technologies are forces behind social change through software tools, content and connectivity delivered over multiple mobile channels.
A bright future in ICT could offer opportunities for a new generation of women, provided that national governments, the private sector, donors, civil society and educational actors acknowledge and support the central role of professional women in further developing and servicing the dynamic and competitive ICT sector.
The growing demand for a range of ICT skills around the globe presents a unique window of opportunity to properly position girls and women in the industry and provide them with the tools necessary to succeed.
Governments should ensure that current educational systems and infrastructure integrate science and ICT-related subjects with mainstream curricula; policies and programmes promote ICT skills among girl students; that women and girls are engaged at all levels of developing human talent and the right skill sets to build a vibrant and diversified ICT sector; that stakeholders change misconceptions about the industry, and demonstrate the employment and career opportunities that the ICT sector holds for girls and women.
Schools, colleges and academic institutions should ensure that courses remain relevant to industry needs, with teamwork and problem-solving, internships, mentoring and social networking; that careers guidance for middle-school and high-school girls informs them of opportunities in the ICT sector; that awareness-raising training and materials are made available for parents, teachers, career guidance counsellors and recruiters, to shift their own mindsets, attitudes and preconceived notions about ICT careers for girls.
ICT enterprises and investors should work with governments to promote on-the-job ICT skills and industry-based training initiatives, and provide feedback to educational bodies on the type of skills and training required; engage in career development in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through learning-by-doing training, mentorship, internships, creating online networks of girls and women in ICT, and other sponsorship for girls and women; involve women in research and innovation processes to increase the potential for creativity, new research content and user-centred design and application; create positive images through role models and awareness campaigns, using all media platforms; support women to establish a healthy and effective balance between work and other responsibilities; participate in ITU’s Girls in ICT Day events every year.