In January this year, Mark Zuckerberg shared a piece of advice for young women on his own Facebook page. “Be the nerd in school,” he wrote, “so [you] can be the next successful inventor!”
His positive message belies an uncomfortable truth: women and girls around the world face unique barriers to participating in the digital economy. Recent research shows that girls are 5 times less likely than boys* to consider a career related to technology. And in Europe’s fast-growing ICT sector, less than 30%* of workers and only 19% of entrepreneurs are women.
Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls report, Digital and Urban Frontiers, identified a number of reasons for this stark disparity. These include gender biases in technology education, a lack of female role models in ICT, stereotypes enforced by popular culture and peer influence.
Against this backdrop, Plan International is celebrating International Girls in ICT Day* on 28 April to encourage and empower girls and young women to consider studies and careers in ICT.
Girls, ICT and the Sustainable Development Agenda
Preparing girls for a career in ICT is not only a matter of gender equality, but also an urgent development imperative. ICT empowers women and girls through increasing their access to health, banking services, education and helping to facilitate political participation. Research by the GSM Association* estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership in the developing world would unlock an economic dividend of US$170 billion over 5 years.
In recognition of the capacity of ICT to drive gender equality and development, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015 require states to “enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women”. This goal has subsequently been affirmed at the UN General Assembly World Summit on the Information Society and the 60th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Girls themselves consider ICT to be a major element in their personal development, useful for learning, staying informed and safe, and earning a living. A teenage girl participating in an internet training session in Achimota College, Ghana, summed up this sentiment: “Our self-esteem has really improved because of the programme. Now we can rub shoulders with boys that want to step on our toes.”
Learning IT skills changes girls’ lives
At Plan International, we have recognised the vital role that ICT plays in empowering girls. In India, our girls’ digital hub project is providing 600 adolescent and young girls with education and life skills training through a network of 12 digital learning centres. The hub, developed with support from Ericsson, helps girls to flourish in fields such as maths and science, where bias may have held them back.
By training girls in communications technologies, we can also promote their political participation. Plan International’s multi-year Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and the Media (YETAM) programme (PDF*) in Cameroon trained girls and boys in the civic use of communications technologies. A key outcome of the programme was that girls assumed the role of group leaders, developing the confidence and skills to use technology and speak out publicly. This girl-led advocacy is emblematic of the emerging global girls’ rights movement tracked in the most recent State of the World’s Girls report.
Closing the digital divide
However, there is still much work for all of us to do to close the gap in digital literacy between girls and boys. Firstly, it is important to address the underlying causes of the divide, by keeping girls in school and encouraging them to take ICT classes. Secondly, we must change mindsets in families, communities and society in general, and shift the perception of technology careers as men’s domain.
Finally, where formal ICT education is not an option, informal extra-curricular activities can allow girls to develop their skills. These activities should place an emphasis on hands-on training, and not only provide access to ICT.
ICT is transforming the world of work, yet there is a very real risk that women and girls could be left behind. This is why we must embrace the ambition of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the occasion of International Girls in ICT Day, and commit to providing girls with the skills they need to learn, lead and thrive in society.
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