Back in 2006, an article in The Economist argued: "Forget China, India and the internet: economic growth is driven by women". A strong, perhaps even provocative statement – but it is not clear if these words are any more true than they were 12 years ago. Women’s participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is proverbially low. This is one reason for the gender shortfall in the tech industry, and for the low numbers of women who occupy corporate management positions in the digital industries. But we cannot attribute this to any one single factor: the causes interlink with family and social environment, popular culture, and personal perceptions.
Generally, not enough is done to encourage girls and young women to opt for STEM education early on. Nor are they guided towards STEM career paths through hands-on experience of the professional prospects to which studying these subjects could lead. A recent OECD paper on "Bridging the Digital Gender Divide", summarising discussions held at last month’s Going Digital summit, confirms this. The way in which technology, science and the digital industries are presented as a man’s world in the media, advertising and statements by high-profile figures does not help, either. The European Platform of Regulatory Authorities has reported on women’s under-representation on- and off-screen and their portrayal in technical and scientific roles.
The problem is all the more worrying, given that a digitised Europe is expected to add €415 billion to the EU’s GDP annually. Analyses show that capturing the benefits of big data analytics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things can make a decisive contribution to economic growth. To support this, demand for skilled ICT professionals is growing: 90% of jobs require basic digital skills. As a new Commission study on “Women in the Digital Age” shows, more women in digital jobs could create an annual €16 billion GDP boost in the EU, not least by improving the start-up environment, as female owned start-ups are more likely to be successful.
We know that growth would go up if women and girls had the same opportunities as men. But there’s so much more to the case for women’s equality than economic growth, and that is the social dimension. Gender equality is about fairness across society as a whole, and something from which everyone could benefit. So it’s essential to recognise the economic contributions that girls and women are already making. Women have always contributed to wealth even when their unpaid contributions have not been included in economic equations – but it is time to redress the balance.
So, at the Digital Day 2019 on April 9, we took up the issue with renewed vigour, seeking the political drive that will result in concrete actions where they are most necessary: at national level. Our work is focused on raising awareness of the problem and possible solutions, which means combating digital gender stereotypes, working across sectors, and engaging people from all sectors. Let’s allow girls and women to choose all their roles freely without bias, prejudice, pay gaps, stereotyping and other barriers. This is what our Women in Digital declaration is all about.