Three times more men than women work in the digital sector in Europe – perhaps our most modern industry. This is an anomaly when you consider that well over half of school leavers continuing to further education are women, yet they make up only 13% of ICT graduates. Why isn’t the digital sector more attractive to them? And if it is attractive to them, why aren’t they making it through the system to take jobs in a sector that is desperate to fill jobs?
Perhaps the biggest study to date, Women in the Digital Age, ordered by European Commission, came to a very interesting conclusion, which rather mirrors the experience of my own company, Huawei. That gender inequality in the digital sphere is essentially the result of the persistence of strong unconscious biases about what is appropriate and what capacities each gender has, as well as about the technologies themselves. To address the situation, it found, “cultural change and initiatives at micro level can help develop female digital entrepreneurship”. Diversity is about people, rather than one gender, and lifelong education and skills development will be the main factor in bringing about the necessary cultural change.
So, how do you deal with these “strong unconscious biases”? In Huawei, we tend not to highlight gender as “a problem” as such. Our response is to treat every employee in the company the same. No matter whether they are male, female, old or young, a veteran or recent undergraduate, our HR policy focuses on the contribution of that person to our customers’ satisfaction. While we may still have more male employees, we do not distinguish between men and women at work. We already have a lot of successful female leaders and there are a lot of women in my team, led by myself.
Greater connectivity will result in more Digital inclusion
The first step towards providing fair opportunities for everyone around the world is by establishing greater connectivity. The more regions and people that can access technology, through more extensive coverage and easier connections to include rural and poorer areas, the more equal society can become.
There are still more than 3.8 billion people who are offline and 1 billion without mobile broadband coverage, many of them, of course, women. This led Huawei, earlier this year, to launch TECH4ALL, a digital inclusion initiative aiming to help 500 million additional people around the world benefit directly from digital technology in the next five years. This is about more than connectivity, though. We need to expand the definition of digital inclusion to include applications and skills, too.
And this means taking the skills to people, since in the poorest regions they don’t have the means to come to us. For example, in Bangladesh, Huawei and the national mobile operator Robi Axiata have been helping the government teach digital skills to a quarter of a million women through mobile training schools, buses equipped with modern equipment, that have travelled to 64 districts of the country.
We do emphasise female empowerment in poorer communities, such as South Africa, where 50% of places on our graduate programmes are filled by women, and Nigeria, where we have trained thousands of young girls in specific ICT-related skills programmes.
New technologies may result in more freedom for many women
While it may sound a cliché to executives operating at the top end of the ICT employment spectrum, many women are still unequally tied to domestic tasks. New technologies such as 5G (the new generation of mobile communication technologies), Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, Smart Home and Robotics systems, should all play a role in democratising the home and giving women greater freedom to pursue external careers and business activities.
5G and the corresponding surge in the use of Big Data should also make access to information more democratic. There will be more data on the Internet and connections will be easier. Professional knowledge will be more available and there will be more scope for making contacts and experimenting online, wherever we happen to be at the time, in our daily routines. 5G and AI will also reduce the burden of physical work and give more opportunities for growth to everyone.
But I come back to education. In Europe, one of the most important initiatives to date for intrinsically addressing the gender gap in ICT is the Digital Education Action Plan adopted by the European Commission in 2018.
By encouraging girls and boys alike to take up ICT-related education and to be able to adapt to the needs of the digital age, this will not only address the gender gap in ICT, but also a digital skills gap in Europe.
Quite simply, we are not churning out enough graduates to fill the jobs required by the new Digital Economy. Many of these, of course, should be filled by women.
By Catherine Chen, Huawei Corporate Senior Vice-President and Director of the Board