Public support to address gender inequality seems to come in ebbs and flows but more recently it feels like it is accelerating. The pressure for action on governments and business leaders around the world is palpable. “Time is up” to solve the widening gender pay gap, secure women’s health and safety, ensure access to education and employment everywhere and respond positively to the growing #MeToo anti-harassment movement.
Let’s be clear – most of the above is simply about catching up and making past wrongs right. But there is another issue emerging which is creating new inequalities. It is the digital gender gap and we must act fast to address it.
The impact of technology is wide ranging, changing every part of society as we know it, from the personal to business and government, from health care to how we work, consume and entertain ourselves. This is a trend that determines our future social and economic success and well-being, as societies and as individuals. The digital era is in full swing. In the U.S. alone, employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 12% from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average of all other occupations. Further to this, business leaders are projecting that their organizations will adapt at an even faster rate, with 82% of leaders anticipating that over the next three years their businesses will become digital organizations.
Yet, we are already facing significant digital gender imbalances. Borrowing technology language, this is a ‘bug’ that needs to be fixed before it takes hold and defines the whole system.
According to the World Bank the proportion of women receiving engineering or computer science degrees in the United States actually went down between 2004 and 2014, and the picture is similar around the world. In 2013, only four countries in Europe could claim to have at least 15% of women among their STEM graduates. And according to the latest U.S. census, only one in seven women with a degree in STEM actually works in that area.
When looking at Europe, we see similarly concerning numbers. For example, in Germany, only 15% of women currently work in STEM jobs, and less than 20% of computer science graduates are women. According to the European Commission, the picture gets even worse when looking at the entire continent as there is an alarming shortage of women studying STEM fields at European universities. Today only 29 out of every 1000 female graduates, or just under 3% of women, have a computing or related STEM degree across Europe.
The World Economic Forum estimates that the EU is losing out on an additional €9 billion annually because of the digital gender gap. Compounding this, the digital index of the “D21” initiative (pdf) shows that women lag behind in digital literacy across all age groups.
But the digital gender gap isn’t just reflected in the number of women who work in the industry, it touches all levels of society. The W20 points out (pdf) that a woman anywhere in the world right now is less likely to be online, is more likely to have low or no digital skills and is at greater risk of being socially and economically excluded by the digital disruption underway. This has been confirmed by others such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which has reported, on average, 12% fewer women worldwide are digitally connected.
If women are not encouraged to take advantage of digital opportunities, everyone will lose. Getting more women online will help spread education resources, help women-led small businesses grow and ensure that globalization through online communication can impact everyone regardless of gender. Getting more women into STEM occupations would also translate into greater gender equality in digital product development and better economic prospects for women and their families.
We know that diversity of thinking contributes to better solutions, including better business outcomes. We also know that there is a strong relationship between diversity and innovation. More diverse teams unlock innovation and consequently lead to stronger organizational performance as well as drive superior financial performance.
Without digitally empowering women, business and society cannot reach their full potential. While the reasons for this systematic and global underrepresentation of women in digital are multiple and complex, this is a serious bug in our system that threatens to plague our future prosperity and create new inequalities.
Fixing the bug
So how do we solve this digital gender bug? Maybe it is as simple as looking at how the tech industry fixes its other ‘bugs’ – with a blend of incremental and substantive improvements. Substantively, it takes a relook at what it is trying to do and develops new state of the art approaches. Incrementally, it issues regular updates, pushes them out to its users, makes sure they are adopted for the good of all users and drives ongoing improvement.
The path to a more equal digital future might in fact lie in explicitly stating what needs to be achieved and then periodically rethinking it from the ground up. In the meantime, we also need to regularly update the system – in education and in the workplace. This starts with ensuring there are no perceived or real barriers for girls and women to go into STEM. It’s also about ensuring STEM industry jobs are accessible to women in workplaces that have an inclusive culture. It’s about creating environments that are welcoming and relevant to women, at school, in universities and in tech workplaces. And it should include a speedy reset if there is something in the environment that gets in the way. This requires constant monitoring of feed-back from those in- and outside of the system – understanding the barriers to success and acting to meet user needs.
Let’s put more women into the digital driving seat, for example with initiatives such as the United Nation’s EQUALS Initiative. This aims to bring together representatives from governments, business and civil society to enable women to shape digitalization via equal access to knowledge, education and capital. Another important initiative comes from the W20 which recommends that the G20 improves access for women and girls to digital technologies and literacy, and facilitate the study of STEM subjects.
We live in a world that is in transition to being totally technology driven. If the women of today are to take advantage of the opportunities that come with this, the foundation for their digital skills and STEM careers needs to be laid now. If we do nothing - if we don’t proactively fix this bug before it affects the whole system - then we risk our digital future being one-tracked, missing out on potential innovation, and creating yet another gender gap for the next generation to undo. Let’s not do that – instead let’s fix the bug now!