Inspiring Women in ICT: Post-Covid Criteria for Reducing the Gender Gap

Motivating women to participate in scientific and technology innovation remains a challenge

If we consider UNESCO’s estimate that by 2050, 75% of jobs will be related to STEM then the need to develop skills becomes more critical than ever. The last two years alone with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-change and conflict-related migration, displacement and disruption have affected the learning and working environments of girls and women. This week I discussed the issue in a panel discussion on “Addressing the Gender Gap: Inspiring Women in ICT” and we reached a consensus about some of the steps that can be taken to address the issue.  

 “COVID-19 has been a major setback for women. It is going to take 125 years to close the gender gap” Coursera, Chief Enterprise Officer, Leah Belsky explained regarding the gravity of the situation but added that with the right investment and support, this gap can be reduced more quickly.  Within STEM, the most male-dominated educational areas are ICT and engineering, where female enrollment is 27% and 28% respectively (UNESCO, 2018). At the current rate, gender parity in STEM will not be achieved before 2100 (UN Women).  Working in the ICT industry we see that the gender imbalance is even more pronounced in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence where only 22% of the professionals worldwide are women. Gender stereotypes and preconceptions are cited as one of the key reasons that prevent ambitions among young women, and worryingly are still deeply embedded in the workplace.  

In 2020, only 16.5% of inventors named in international patent applications were women with only a 3.8% increase during the past decade (WIPO – March 8, 2021). At this rate it will take until 2058 to reach gender parity. Currently most of these filings are in life sciences. This gender gap in innovation is creating a bias that is impacting sustainable development of economies and with new predictive, intuitive technologies such as AI and machine learning it is essential to have diversity in the design and regulation of technology. So how can the situation be addressed? 

World Economic Forum, Director, Head of ICT, Isabelle Mauro explained “Inclusion isn’t by desire, it is by design” and this means appropriate strategies and action are required. Firstly, countries are recommended to develop national strategies with actionable roadmaps to increase women’s participation in STEM education. Step up efforts to cultivate top-notch talents in cutting-edge areas and collaborate with various parties to increase young women’s interest and involvement in STEM, entrepreneurial activities and innovative work.  

Secondly, set out a clear policy on gender discrimination, such as eliminating explicit and implicit gender biases in recruitment, retention, and promotion practices in scientific and technology workplaces.  

Finally, bridge the digital gender divide by providing universal and affordable access to broadband connectivity networks and cloud services and creating an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment. 

At the company level, employers among the scientific and technology community can support and encourage more women to enter, remain or re-join STEM career by providing more flexible working conditions for women scientists and technology workers. 

As a private company, Huawei is continuously investing to offer women more opportunities to pursue a career in tech with a view to benefiting the industry overall as well as developing our own talent pool. Seeds for the Future, Huawei’s flagship program, has attracted more than 30,000 tech talents from over 500 top universities in 126 countries worldwide since 2008. In 2020, the average percentage of female participants was around 30% and above 50% in many countries worldwide.  We have also recently the launched HUAWEI Women Developers (HWD), a global program which aims to empower women developers to create applications and tools that can change the world. We believe that women will lead technological innovation and hope that programs such as the HUAWEI Women Developers program will help women better leverage their talents and unique value, and give them opportunities to demonstrate their leadership abilities.  

 But we don’t only face a digital divide gap in internet access but we also face another undeniable challenge: the skills gap. The global “talent shortage” is currently at 38%, with the top ten hardest jobs to fill in STEM professions. There is currently a 200-million-person shortage of ICT-skilled workers around the world. In other words, the industry lacks highly talented individuals with the innovative capabilities that are essential to drive new growth. To bridge this skills gap, we need to understand and teach the skills that these young talents need to take full advantage of ongoing technological advances to help bridge digital gender divides worldwide.   

Closing the digital divide means helping young people access training and educational opportunities in STEM. Insights from Coursera show women enrolled in 29% of courses enrollments in tech compared with 23% in 2021, and are more likely to enroll in courses that are taught by women instructors. Women are also 1.7 times more likely than men to enroll in a course on resilience than men, 1.3 times more likely for courses on human computer interaction and 1.4 times more likely for user experience courses. The five top countries for enrolment included Brazil, China, India, Mexico and US. Some of the top courses women enrolled in include computer programming (8.5 million), data analysis and machine learning (both 7.4 million). Companies such as Huawei are investing to offer more opportunities in this area by working with a number of organizations worldwide on various projects aiming to bring digital skills training to young ICT talents.  

Despite the challenges, there is optimism and the importance of support for and among women is essential. Women Who Code, CEO, Alaina Percival who established the community over a decade is energized saying “With our community of over 300,000 women we have recognized that radical transformation is possible.” Encouragingly, there are jobs to be filled.  Huawei will hire over 10,000 fresh graduates this year. It is just one global corporation among many who need skilled talent and are at the forefront of creating technology that must prioritize the needs of society. 

As we pursue multilateral cooperation to address challenges of skills shortages and the need for diversity, it is also becoming very clear that governments cannot do it alone. We need all actors to join efforts, governments, businesses, investors, cities, regions, and even ourselves as individuals united to decarbonize our economy for a better and more sustainable world. 


About the Author

Afke Schaart is Senior Vice President of Public Affairs of Huawei Technologies.

Featured image: ©Leungchopan 

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