Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women in ICT

Fresh from working on the Gender Action Plan for EGI-InSPIRE, I was pleased to join a session last thing yesterday exploring how to encourage more women into ICT, run by ECWT (European Centre for Women and Technology). While women represent around 60% of graduates in the life sciences, when you look at engineering, the figure drops to around 19%. As you move through the career path, women gradually start to disappear – as a whole, there are more women than men graduating from first degree courses, but the numbers decline for graduates of higher degrees, in management positions, and reach almost zero in many countries when you get to board level. In some regions, such as India, proportions of female ICT graduates are much more even, so how can women, and men, be encouraged into science and engineering?

ICT suffers from an image problem – it’s seen as lower status than careers such as medicine, it’s ‘difficult’, lower paid than other jobs and generally just not very appealing to young people. So if we want to see more women coming through into management positions down the line, there are two problems to solve: encouraging women into the field in the first place, and keeping them in it once they’re there.

The speakers at the session all seemed to agree on the nature of the problem, but solutions were a little trickier. A combination of top down and bottom up approaches seems to make sense – grass roots efforts, such as after school clubs running practice businesses, work shadowing, bringing role models into schools. This doesn’t work without the top down approach as well – buy in from top level managers who really believe that encouraging more women into management positions makes good business sense. Mckinsey figures show that businesses with more women in senior management have weathered the recent economic storm much better than those who don’t. Evidence seems to suggest that women show a wider range of the core management skills – they are interested in people, give rewards for achievements, issue clear instructions and are participative managers.

So what is the picture at ICT2010? I’d be interested to know what the breakdown of attendance figures looks like – for EGEE conferences, the percentage of women attending is usually around 20%. Looking around the exhibition area, there seems to be a good proportion of women here and 3 out of the 5 opening plenary speakers were women: Neelie Kroes, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and Silvana Koch-Mehrin. But in the future developments plenary on Tuesday, there were no women on the panel. As one audience member pointed out, do women have nothing to say about the future of the digital agenda in Europe? Let’s hope they do.

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