Addressing gender inequalities crucial to closing digital gaps, say Commission officials

According to the Commission’s Digital Compass, a plan released last year to guide digital transformation in Europe throughout the decade, at least 80% of the EU’s population should have basic digital skills by 2030. Progress towards this target has been slow, however. [Shutterstock / Andrey_Popov]

Efforts to address the gender imbalances in the tech sector will be fruitless without action to close the gender pay gap more generally, the European Commission’s former deputy director-general for communication has said. 

Whatever is done at the EU or national level to support women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), Sixtine Bouygues said, “nothing will be enough if we don’t remedy the pay gap”. 

Action in this area is also needed to address gender gaps in pensions and care, said Katarina Ivanković Knežević, director of the Commission’s department for social affairs and inclusion. 

Both were speaking at the Huawei School for Female Leadership in the Digital Age, a week-long programme that brought together young women working in tech from each of the EU’s 27 member states, as well as the Western Balkans, in Nice last week.

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Digital skills 

According to the Commission’s Digital Compass, a plan released last year to guide digital transformation in Europe throughout the decade, at least 80% of the EU’s population should have basic digital skills by 2030.

However, progress towards this target has been slow:  According to the 2021 edition of the Commission’s Digital Economic and Social Index (DESI) report, only 56% of people in Europe possessed at least basic digital skills as of 2019.

This figure was a 2% increase from 2015, the report noted, meaning a threefold increase in the growth rate is required in order for the Compass’ goals to be met.

Data show mixed situations across EU states on digital transition

The European Commission has set a number of objectives for the digital transition of member states as part of the EU’s “2030 Digital Compass”, and the annual progress report, released on 12 November, showed mixed results across the bloc.

There has also been little progress when it comes to addressing the gender gap within digital skills. The 2021 Women in Digital Scoreboard found that men scored higher on levels of basic and above-average digital skills, as well as on basic software skills in 2019.

Similarly, women are significantly underrepresented when it comes to ICT specialists (at 19%) and STEM graduates, where they make up around one third. 

EU action to improve the situation is needed, Bouygues said but warned that when it comes to encouraging women to enter, and remain in, the tech sector, “the problem is far more general than only the digital skills gap”.

Simply encouraging more women to study STEM subjects will not be sufficient to address the issue, she added, calling for a more comprehensive approach to fix the “leaky pipeline” effect – the phenomenon whereby there is a progressive loss of women from STEM studies and careers.

“We can’t assume that adding more water at one end will fix the leak”, she said. 

Success, she said, will depend on closing the gender pay gap, which, as of 2021, stands at 14.1%, with women earning 86 cents to every €1 earned by men. Tackling this gulf is a key facet of the Commission’s 2020-2025 Gender Equality Strategy. 

Echoing this, Ivanković Knežević noted that the gender pension gap, recorded as 30.1% as of 2020,  and the care gap must also be addressed.

The care gap sees women in the EU spend an average of 22 hours per week – as opposed to the nine spent by men – on care and household work, both of which impede women’s potential progression. 

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Boosting skills 

Addressing the digital skills gap in general, however, is no easy task, Bouygues noted, not least because education is a national competence within the EU, meaning the primary responsibility for its implementation lies with individual countries. 

This has led to vastly different approaches to teaching digital skills and, combined with substantial variations in the digital infrastructure, means that levels of digital literacy are unevenly distributed across the EU. 

Industry calls for scaling up investment in digital skills amid shortage

Investing in digital skills will be crucial if Europe wants to reshape its economic position and secure its place in the future global value chain, industry and innovation figures have said, amid an ongoing skills shortage in the sector.

However, while progress has been slower in some places, Manuela Prina, head of skills at the European Training Foundation, told EURACTIV developments in this area are now accelerating, in part because of the COVID pandemic, but also thanks to schemes and proposals put forward at the EU level.

Digital skills are no longer confined to the traditional education system, however, Prina noted, but are of increasing importance to the entire adult population. As such, she said, their relevance is no longer limited to a single policy area, but instead spans them all.

“This means that many more actors are involved in this policy direction”, she said.

“And this means that across different programmes – not only through the formal education system but also through the known format and through access to training programmes for the adult population – we have an acceleration.” 

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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