ICT is for women, too

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Afke Schaart [GSMA]

Acknowledging the gender issue sporadically in a male-dominated ICT sector is no longer enough if businesses are serious about bridging the gender gap, writes Afke Schaart.

Afke Schaart, Vice President of Europe at GSMA, represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide.

Along with women across Europe, I watched in admiration when Martha Lane Fox delivered her Dot Everyone speech last month as part of the Richard Dimbleby lecture series. Headline news about women in the ICT sector is often reduced to gender bias conversations, such as the Ellen Pao case in Silicon Valley, when there is much more newsworthy content to be celebrated. This is something that the GSMA is actively trying to champion as part of its Connected Women programme, as well as empowering women as leaders in the mobile sector.

While I’m pleased to say that there is a 50:50 split of female and male representation amongst the GSMA’s employees, the ICT sector remains a male-dominated one. You need only take a look around the room at one of the many meetings I attend to see this for yourself. But despite what might be portrayed in the media, gender equality is not just good for business, it’s good business.

For example, consider that companies with a healthy gender balance are 45 per cent more likely to improve market share, achieve 53 per cent higher returns on equity and are 70 per cent more inclined to report successfully capturing new markets when compared to those that don’t. There are similar parallels in the developing world.

Our research shows that in low- and middle-income countries, 200 million fewer women own a mobile phone than men. What’s more, those women that do own mobile phones use them predominantly for voice calls. I find the figures quite astonishing. Especially when you consider that 58 percent of the women we surveyed said that owning a mobile phone would grant them more autonomy and independence and 60 percent of those interviewed in ten out of eleven countries said it would save them money.

The ICT sector has had a tremendous impact over the past few decades, transforming the communication landscape and making our lives increasingly connected. While you would think that such a fast-paced and dynamic industry would be highly desirable to everyone in terms of career opportunities, the senior workforce still largely remains male-dominated.

And even in 2015, I’m quite amazed by how many young girls believe that a career in technology is not for them. If you aspire to a career in the fashion, music or healthcare industries, having a background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics can help set you apart from the crowd, improving your chances of success. In today’s digital world, employers increasingly value these skills.

I’m giving the same advice to my own daughter. Soon she has to make some important academic choices and I’ve suggested she chooses a pathway that is not only future-proof and goes beyond borders, but something that is also part of everyday life, interesting and fun. For me, the technology industry encompasses these aspects perfectly.

For this year’s Girls in ICT Day, the GSMA is inviting a group of 13-year-old London schoolgirls to consider their future academic and professional choices. We will introduce them to inspirational women who work in ICT, including our Chief Strategy Officer, Hyunmi Yang, who will discuss her own journey in the technology world, as well as host an interactive 3D printing and design workshop.

Acknowledging the gender issue sporadically is no longer enough if businesses are serious about bridging the gender gap once and for all. Some of the measures that telecoms companies can take to integrate best practices into their internal processes include setting aspirational targets and mechanisms that inject accountability throughout the organisation and balancing recruitment panels.

Outside the office walls, they should look into offering women ‘returnships’ (programmes to support those looking to restart their careers after an extended absence from the workforce) and equipping young girls and women with skills and inspiration to help them pursue a career in ICT.

Finally, by tracking the progress through collecting and analysing gender-disaggregated data on areas such as attraction, recruitment, retention and promotion, company management teams will be able to fully understand the positive effects of their actions.

Future growth in the telecoms and ICT sector depends on everybody being involved, not just half the population. I look forward to working in a telecoms industry where men and women will be equally represented across the workforce and helping to deliver the undeniable socio-ecomic benefits of mobile services to citizens across the globe.

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