Industry leader: More women needed in mobile phone industry

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More women need to work in the digital sector if it is to realise its full potential, says Anne Bouverot. The director-general of the GSM Association added that the industry must start by making itself more attractive to women and encouraging girls to see the benefits of working in the sector.

GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, covering more than 220 countries, nearly 800 operators and over 230 companies in the mobile ecosystem. She responded to questions from EurActiv's Jeremy Fleming.

What contribution to Europe’s digital economy are women making, how does that compare with other parts of the world?

According to the European Commission, of the seven million people working in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector in Europe, only 30% are women. This is a missed opportunity - not only for women but also for the European economy. A recent study published by the Commission indicated that if women held digital jobs as frequently as men, Europe’s GDP could be boosted annually by around €9 billion. The study explained that the ICT sector itself would also benefit, since organisations that are more inclusive of women in management achieve a 35% higher return on equity and 34% better total return to shareholders than other organisations.

Compared to the rest of the world, however, Europe has made initial progress in advancing women’s participation in ICT. This year the United Nations Broadband Commission released the first global report on broadband and gender, which showed that women now account for fewer than 20% of ICT specialists around the world. This amounts to a huge untapped potential.

What are the career opportunities in the mobile industry for women?

Career opportunities in this sector are immense. The European mobile industry has been one of the most successful in the world, with a strong track record in innovation. Mobile contributed more than two per cent of European GDP in 2012 and employs 390,000 women and men across the EU, making mobile comparable in size to aerospace and larger than pharma.

The mobile industry has the potential
to play a leading role in helping the EU to meet the growth, jobs, sustainability and innovation objectives set out in the EU 2020 strategy. By 2020, the mobile industry could generate up to 156,000 new jobs across the region, with the right conditions in place.

In the wider ICT sector, the European Commission expects up to 900,000 ICT vacancies by 2015. This should be a strong incentive for young women looking for exciting and rewarding careers with long-term prospects. However, those vacancies won’t be easily filled if we don’t attract more women to study subjects such as computer programming, engineering and maths.  As Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes recently pointed out, only three per cent of women have a first degree in an ICT-related subject, while for men it's nearly 10%.

Another issue is that whilst women constitute only 30% of ICT workforce in Europe, they also leave the industry too early, missing the chance to go to the top of their profession. Recently the European Commission reported that while 20% of women aged 30 with ICT-related degrees work in the sector, only nine per cent of women above 45 years of age do so.

It’s a shame to see so many women not extending their careers in ICT – careers that can offer a combination of challenging assignments, good remuneration and a healthy work-life balance. In fact, women who work in the ICT sector earn almost nine per cent more than women in other parts of the economy, enjoy greater flexibility in arranging their working schedules and are less susceptible to unemployment.

Does industry need to take action to attract women?

Absolutely. The underrepresentation of women in ICT clearly shows that the ICT industry needs to take concrete actions to bridge the gender gap in ICT. I believe that we can do a lot to change the status quo, through three crucial areas of action:

Firstly, to meet the industry employment needs, we need to encourage young women to pursue degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. For those who are unemployed or under-employed, industry should provide opportunities for them to develop the skills to secure jobs in technology fields. Internships at companies across the mobile ecosystem are one way of driving this, while meeting with and engaging with students at universities offers another opportunity to encourage young women to pursue education and careers in technology. 

Second, it’s important to raise the overall awareness of the opportunities for women in mobile. The GSMA has developed the Connected Women programme to focus on how we can attract more female talent to the mobile industry. Through annual conferences, networking and mentoring activities, we are working to highlight the opportunities for women in the mobile industry and attract women to career paths in this vibrant and dynamic sector. We are building the Connected Women programme not only here in Europe, but on a global basis.

Lastly, we should provide a forum to showcase women in leadership. In the events that the GSMA organises, such as Mobile World Congress, Mobile Asia Expo and our Mobile 360 series of events, we are actively working to increase the number of women who speak in our conference programmes. This is not only at the CEO level in our keynote programmes, but at all levels, across the entire conference.

What kinds of initiatives would you favour?

Personally, I support measuring and tracking progress. For example, tracking the percentage increase of women on boards or at the executive level at European companies over a period of several years.

Companies and organisations should of course have the flexibility to set their own objectives for balancing the gender of their workforce, but I am also pragmatic - if no notable progress is seen after a number of years (and I mean something like five years, not a generation!) then quotas might be a useful measure. But that would not be my first choice.

Are there other gender equality issues at stake in the digital sector?

One thing that was true in the GSMA, and is also the case for many other organisations in the digital sector, is that while there are women in the workforce, they are not necessarily working in the higher echelons. When I arrived at the GSMA, most of the senior positions were occupied by men. But we now have a chief strategy officer who is a woman, and we continue to hire senior women in our organisation. So we are very focused on improving this metric.

One of the problems with monitoring gender equality in the digital sector is the difficulty in tracking progress of companies hiring women into ICT-related positions – due to a general lack of data – and a lack of data which is broken down by sex, age and location. This is compounded by the absence of internationally comparable statistical standards and definitions related to ICT occupations.

Does social media and the new digital sector entrench or liberate from gender stereotypes?

I believe that social media and the rapidly growing digital sector offer fantastic opportunities for everybody. However, in order to succeed in this promising sector you need the right set of skills - and of course access to Internet. Those who are lucky to profit from Internet resources and IT know-how can unleash their technological and business creativity in the digital space.

At the same time we should bear in mind that prevailing stereotypes may limit access for girls and women to these tools, pushing them to curtail their education prematurely and/or stick to ‘traditional’ interests and professions. According to the United Nations Broadband Commission’s global report there are currently 200 million fewer women online than men. The study also warns that the gap could grow to 350 million within the next three years if action is not taken, noting that while the gap between male and female users is relatively small in developed countries, it widens rapidly in the developing world, where expensive, ‘high status’ technology like computers are often reserved for use by men. If we really want to free the digital sector from gender stereotypes, we should start by ensuring equal access to digital skills and tools for girls around the world.

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