ITU'S High-level Debate held to commemorate 100 years of International Women's Day tackled the issue of declining female participation in the information and communication technology industry.
It's a little-known fact that women were the original programmers of ENIAC, the US government's first ever computer. But while teenage girls now use computers and the Internet at rates similar to boys, they are five times less likely to consider a technology-related career.
It wasn't always so. In the US in the 1980s, for example, young women were earning 37% of computer science degrees; today, that number has fallen to around 20%.
That lack of trained female professionals in turn means that in OECD countries, women now account for under 20% of ICT specialists in OECD countries. It also means that most developed countries are forecasting an alarming shortfall in the number of skilled staff to fill upcoming jobs in the ICT sector. The European Union calculates that in 10 years' time there will be a lack of some 300,000 people to fill ICT jobs in the region; globally, the shortfall is closer to 1.2 million.
With computer and information systems managers consistently ranked among the top 20 best-paying jobs – on a par with surgeons, orthodontists, airline pilots and lawyers – why are young women turning their backs on technology?
ITU's High-level Panel of experts from government, the ICT industry, the education sector and the media agreed that major problems include a poor perception of the industry among girls, and a lack of inspiring role models.
Finnish Communications Minister Suvi Lindén spoke of a culture of negativity around science and maths that is affecting girls as young as primary level. Educator Inal Uygur of the International School of Geneva noted that teachers unwittingly or even deliberately put girls off technology as a career, often with a misplaced sense that they are acting in the girl's best interests. Professor Anastasia Ailamaki, who leads the DIAS Lab at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, observed that male teachers' envy of young girls' talents can also sometimes play an insidious role.
Industry representatives Alethea Lodge-Clark of Microsoft and Victor Agnellini of Alcatel-Lucent affirmed that encouraging more girls into technology careers was important to the ongoing growth of the ICT industry, particularly in Europe and the US. Both highlighted their own companies' initiatives to redress the problem, such as the Digigirlz programme managed globally by Microsoft, and female-oriented initiatives managed by the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation in countries around the world. Aurora Velez, Chief Producer of the Learning World series at Euronews, pointed to some of the innovative approaches her team has uncovered around the world, and hosted the screening of two Learning World stories created for this year's International Women's Day, both focused on encouraging girls to think about careers in technology.
Dr Speranza Ndege, Director of the Institute of Open, Distance and e-Learning at Kenya's Kenyatta University, told of the strong resistance she met from male colleagues when she crossed over from the traditional female academic domain of social sciences to ICTs. ITU's own Gitanjali Sah, who works as an ICT analyst focused on development issues, brought a regional perspective, noting that ICT training for girls was very popular in much of the Asia region, because of its perceived prestige.
And Serbian Minister Jasna Matiã, who has earned an international reputation as a passionate champion of technology education for women, proposed a concrete way forward with the creation of a Girls in ICT Day, to be held on the fourth Thursday in April every year, where governments, private industry and the education sector will be encouraged to team up to promote technology as an attractive career choice for female students.
The event was attended by around 100 representatives from UN agencies, national missions, the ICT industry, the education sector and the general public.