Liz Nerad l Palladium - Apr 21 2021
Closing the Digital Divide: Encouraging Girls and Women into ICT

On April 22, the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) marks Girls in ICT (information and communications technology) Day. The annual event highlights the need to promote technology career opportunities for girls and women globally.

Even before COVID-19, the technology sector was already the world’s fastest-growing sector, in part spurred by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, as stay-at-home orders required most of the world to shift to virtually-enabled work, school, healthcare, shopping, and social events, technology has further seeped into daily lives, creating an even more booming sector.

While the demand for technology increases, the supply of professionals to keep innovating while maintaining secure access to digital technologies cannot keep up. The ITU estimates that there will be a skills shortfall of over two million jobs in the next five years within the ICT sector.

As the global community invests in programs to increase our workforce with advanced digital skills, there must be a deliberate emphasis on skill-building for girls and women to slow the growing gender gap within the ICT sector.

Skills for Closing the Gap

Though it’s clear there’s a gender gap in the sector, it can be challenging to measure women’s engagement in ICT, especially in low- and middle-income countries; however, data in high-income countries highlight the stark gap. For example, a recent study in the European Union shows that only 17 per cent of ICT students, 19 per cent of ICT managers, and 9 per cent of ICT developers are women.

It is estimated that in the United States, women earned only 20 per cent of computer and information science degrees and filled only 25 per cent of computing jobs – a percentage that has been decreasing since 1991. Further, only 11 per cent of executive positions in Silicon Valley are held by women.

But, what can be done?

It starts with the basics. Beyond the need for advanced digital skills responsive to innovations in the tech industry, there is also a need to improve basic digital skills and internet access to help find and keep jobs and close the growing digital divide. In the developed world, the internet penetration rate is 87 per cent, with an almost equal percentage of internet users being men and women. But just 19 per cent of people in the least developed countries access the internet, and only 15 per cent are women.

Access to the internet and digital technologies enables access to information, education, healthcare, and commerce. Last year, the UN Secretary-General said that narrowing the digital divide could be the greatest equaliser and enabler of our times in promoting equality.

So to mark this year’s Girls in ICT Day, after a year where technology has possibly never been more important – what can funders, private sector and implementing organisations do to encourage girls and women in ICT?

Steps for Encouraging Girls and Women in ICT

First, there’s a need to understand the status of girls within the ICT sector across access, use, training, and the workforce. While there have been significant efforts to improve data disaggregation by gender or age, we still can’t truly understand or measure progress towards inclusion if data isn’t disaggregated by both gender and age.

Similarly, programming should be viewed through a lens for digital and gender inclusion. Education programs and youth development programs need to include digital skills building to support the supply of and the demand for digital skills. Economic growth programs can further strengthen digital inclusion, encouraging investments that build inclusive digital ecosystems.

Additionally, we need female representation in programs designed to encourage girls and young women to learn tech skills and, further, within formalised career paths where those skills are applicable. We need to start early to break the stereotypes related to gender and tech and encourage authority figures to support girls to pursue education in technology. We need to build on hiring practices that support diversity, equity and inclusion, while also creating flexible and supportive working environments that allow women within tech to thrive.

Laureen Omare, a data engineer supporting Palladium’s Kenya Health Management Information System (KeHMIS II) Project, says that we need to show the diverse facets of ICT, including the exciting career opportunities for women within ICT.

She adds that it’s important to note that technology is no longer just computer programming. There’s a need to showcase career options across innovative technologies, like machine learning and robotics, to inspire girls and women to see the positive impact that they can create in what’s become a truly diverse sector.

This year’s ICT Day theme of “Connected Girls, Creating Brighter Futures” reminds us that as we continue to reap the benefits of a technology-driven society, we all play a role in ensuring girls are getting and staying connected, too. This extends from providing equitable access to creating career opportunities within the sector in supportive environments for women.

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