Paving the way for women in technology

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

Only 30% of ICT professionals are women. [ITU Pictures/Flickr]

To mark International Girls in ICT Day 2016, we are calling for greater efforts to close the gap between aspiration and achievement for young women around the world, writes Sylvie Laffarge.

Sylvie Laffarge is the director of Citizenship Europe at Microsoft.

Ask a 10-year old girl what she wants to be when she grows up. “Scientist” is likely to rank highly. But ask the same girl the same question just a few years later and that initial interest in a scientific career is likely to have waned. Despite enjoying science and technology as academic subjects, the number of girls and young women who follow their early ambitions to carve out careers as scientists, engineers or inventors remains limited.

Currently, women represent just 30% of Europe’s ICT workforce. That means we’re missing out on the potential of millions. And if we as a society can’t convince young women that they too can carve a place for themselves in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) hall of fame, it is not just the individual potential of these girls which will go unrealised, it is also Europe’s economic future which is at risk.

While recent predictions forecast a significant loss in traditional white collar office jobs by 2020, the same predictions foresee a gain of 2 million jobs in STEM sectors: areas which rely indisputably upon key digital skills. Whether or not these changes in the labour market will transform society for better or for worse is entirely up to us.

Empowering girls and young women to strive for excellence in their careers goes hand in hand with successfully building a Digital Single Market in Europe. The more people are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace, the more we can adapt to the transformative power of technology while keeping our economy growing. If we could boast as many women as men in digital jobs, the EU’s GDP could be boosted by a staggering €9 billion. Simply put, when women win, everyone wins.

But heightening young women’s curiosity for computer science isn’t just about ensuring a future pipeline of talent for our industry. We also know that digital skills have applications across almost every industry. From architecture and video game design to filmmaking, digital skills are now a much-valued string to any woman’s bow, regardless of her profession.

Europe has a collective responsibility to promote ICT training as a mainstream necessity, as much as reading, writing and arithmetic. The European Commission is already making promising moves towards this with the ‘New Skills Agenda for Europe‘ which should be adopted in May 2016. The e-Skills for Jobs campaign fits into the efforts to align the European economy to the new digital reality and to close the gap between the number of job seekers in Europe and the number of unfilled digital jobs.

More of these future-oriented policies both at European and national level are necessary to support the efforts by educators, industry, civil society and many others to equip young people with these skills.

Beyond making computer science education an integral part of Europe’s curricula, policymakers and educators must also ensure the accessibility of digital tools for both girls and boys, agree on common educational standards and qualifications and help promote the many varied career paths and future possibilities opened up by digital skills and other STEM subjects.

Teachers are essential for realising this vision. As part of STEM Discovery Week, Microsoft, together with other STEM Alliance partners, seeks to raise the awareness of educators about more engaging methods to teach STEM subjects to inspire the next generation of innovators.

This is only the sixth year the global community is marking International Girls in ICT Day. We can only imagine what achievements we’ll be celebrating in the tenth year. One thing, however, is clear: giving girls and young women the tools and training to forge their own, unique paths to success in Europe or anywhere in the world is an absolute must, not just for them, but for us all.

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