Digital gender gap is an issue for all of society, says industry leader

Sabine Herlitschka is the CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria AG. [Infineon Austria] 

This article is part of our special report Addressing the digital gender divide.

Women are underrepresented in digital sectors and the gender gap in STEM fields starts from a young age. There have been some developments when it comes to addressing this but progress has been slow and further action is needed, Sabine Herlitschka, CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria, told EURACTIV.  

While there are important steps that industry can take to encourage diversity, she noted, this is not just an industry issue, nor is it just a women’s issue: it is a societal issue, she stressed.

Sabine Herlitschka is the CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria AG. 

What is your view on the current state of the digital gender gap — how much progress has been made and where can we go from here? 

To start off with a positive statement, I think opportunities have never been as good for women in science and technology as they are today. Nowadays, it becomes even clearer that with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, people are the engineers of the future.

If you think of the major global challenges, in particular something like the green transition and managing climate change, science and technology will play a key role. And therefore, everyone who wants to contribute to shaping a positive future, has this fantastic opportunity with STEM technologies. This is particularly true for women; in so many fields, women have always contributed to managing major societal challenges.

Despite this situation, and despite many of the activities, we still see quite a gender gap. Yes, there have been developments but only in small steps. So I still consider this issue a major societal task. This is not just a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue.

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Research shows that the gender divide in digital starts early. What can be done to encourage more equal participation in STEM from a young age, both in terms of education and broader perceptions of the field? 

I think every child is a natural-born scientist. Because every child asks their parents, why does it rain? Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Every child has an intrinsic interest in these questions that basically relate to natural sciences.

Every study shows that this kind of natural interest should be strengthened at a very early age. We have initiated that at Infineon, just like many other organisations and companies as well, to provide this kind of encouragement of natural interest. In our case, through an international daycare centre for children. This international daycare centre has a focus on natural sciences and technology. We cover the entire age range, always with the intention to demonstrate how exciting science and technology is.

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I think in the public domain, STEM education and professions are typically perceived as male-dominated. And that’s something we just have to demonstrate by role models is not the case, and by concrete opportunities for instance in cooperation with schools and universities. We want to demonstrate that the opportunities are broader and they exist for everyone.

What should industry be doing to ensure that women are supported in STEM sectors to both continue pursuing the careers they want to and to reach higher positions?

Unfortunately, this is not an issue for industry alone. On the one hand, there’s quite a lot of awareness of diversity. Diverse teams are stronger and more competitive, also in tangible financial terms. On the other hand, diversity needs to be developed in order to make it work.

Based on this evidence, many more organisations are starting to understand that diversity has to be considered not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a strong competitive factor and thus an opportunity.

Many more organisations are taking note of that, including through specific measures, for instance in the public sector, with the introduction of quotas. Or through the definition of targets, as we have at Infineon, where we have defined a specific target for the share of women in leadership positions.  

Based on the evidence that diversity is a strong competitive factor, one should ask why there are so few companies with women in strong leadership positions. 

Many studies also demonstrate that because of traditional role perceptions, it’s even more important to provide adequate and high-quality childcare. That seems to be the most effective measure to make sure that women can pursue their professional development.

I also want to underline that having broader participation of women, particularly in STEM, is not just an individual issue, but it’s a broader societal issue. Therefore my expectations are not only that women serve as role models but also that men speak up and underline the importance of diversity.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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