Alethea Lodge, Public-Private Partnerships Manager, International Organizations, Microsoft
Science + technology + engineering + mathematics = STEM, a key driver of progress and economic growth around the world. However, in both developed and developing countries, women are highly underrepresented in these fields, meaning that STEM is also critical to women empowerment. When it comes to the ICT sector, for example, only 18% of computer science degrees in the United States are earned by women. In African countries the representation is similar, with women making up only 15% of the ICT workforce in Kenya and 18% in South Africa.
But a new generation of ‘girl geeks’ are making a real mark on the technology sector and propelling the economic growth of their countries forward, like Senegalese, Mariéme Jamme, CEO of IT organization, SpotOne and co-founder of Africa Gathering, the first global platform bringing together entrepreneurs and others to share ideas about development in Africa. Although female role models are changing perceptions about women in ICT, most still face barriers to entry and have not yet been able to take advantage of the immense opportunities provided by technology.
Microsoft is a firm supporter of women in the STEM fields and we are part of several partnerships and initiatives to enhance access. As part of our 4Afrika Initiative we launched Aspire Women, a series of events designed to empower over 3000 young women to play a leadership role in their communities, build their IT skills and self-esteem, and introduce new models for self-employment. Last month, 100 young women from all over Egypt participated in an Aspire Women workshop and learned general computer skills and how IT can help in running a business. The country is one of many in Africa where women perceive a STEM career as unattainable but the technology skills acquired at the workshop will help them secure better jobs, build successful businesses, and have an impact on their personal lives and communities. Exposure to technology should happen at a young age, which is why we also have our YouthSpark’s DigiGirlz program to inspire high school girls to pursue STEM subjects by providing them with the opportunity to interact with Microsoft employees and receive computer and technology training.
Mobile technology in particular is having real impact on economies and development, and on the 20th June I was fortunate to attend the Scientific
Mobile Learning workshop in Nsukka, with our longstanding partner, UNESCO, and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the University of Nigeria. The workshop uncovered how technology can be a catalyst for empowering women, and in turn, enables them to have a greater impact on economic and social development and pedagogies for teaching girls STEM in the classroom. On the agenda was the recently released white paper, Girls in STEM and ICT Careers: The Path toward Gender Equality. Sponsored by Microsoft in conjunction with UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and UN Women, the whitepaper pinpoints solutions to the global challenge of increasing the number of girls interested in STEM subjects.
The solutions include four focus areas:
- Combatting stereotypes about women and girls in science
- Making IT relevant to their lives
- Women empowerment
- Improving access by overcoming the issue of skills availability and development
This is no quick fix, but if academia, private enterprise, government and NGOs all work together to change cultural perceptions and provide ample and inspirational learning opportunities, we should start to see women finally represented more equally in such critical academic and professional fields.