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What holds girls back from pursuing a STEM career?

By ITU News

Girls and young women around the world face structural challenges in gaining equal access to the Internet.

Among the many inequalities in the digital world, online harassment and violence are significant barriers for girls and women’s full participation there. These barriers only grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, as digital platforms became more widely relied upon.

These problems can harm both personal and professional development for girls, as well as obstruct progress in the communities to which they belong.

Yet some do persist, with women forming a growing contingent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – professionals around the world.

To mark International Girls in ICT Day on 28 April, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) asked women across the global tech community which factor they found most decisive in their decision to pursue a career in the field.

“A mandatory prerequisite”

Based on responses collected through Twitter and LinkedIn, safe and affordable access to the Internet is the key factor for girls interested in technology. Role models and inspiration from other women are other decisive factors in making girls choose tech or other STEM careers.

One more strong consideration for girls and young women, according to responses collected, is feeling safe in the online environment.

Julia A., data scientist, said that digital access was a “mandatory prerequisite” for her training in the field. “However, the learning process would not have been the same without individual coaching on a daily basis,” she added as part of her survey response.

“I benefited from weekly one-on-one sessions with a mentor who is an expert in the field, and I was able to progress rapidly in my projects thanks to his expertise.”

Thinking of girls in developing countries, she added: “Undoubtedly, access to both affordable Internet and mentoring will be the keys to success for women and girls in data.”

The lower presence of girls and women in STEM careers is not explained by poorer maths or science skills.  Stronger contributing factors are the stereotypes and expectations that continue to surround women during their formative years. For instance, at the age of 15 years, the percentage of girls wanting to go into engineering or computer science is 13 points lower than the corresponding percentage for boys, according to OECD data.

Role models for inclusive tech

Fostering a greater presence of women in the tech sector could also help to develop more inclusive digital tools.

“It matters why technology is made, and by whom,” said Monica Aspe, CEO of AT&T Mexico, in an interview for the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. Aspe’s intervention is part of an initiative to spread role models and inspiration among girls.

“We need the people who design technology platforms to represent the multitude of views, experiences, perspectives that we find in humanity.”

At the same time, if women cannot access the Internet or feel safe online, they will have fewer options to improve their digital skills and benefit from the diverse opportunities offered by information and communication technology (ICT) tools.

“ICT tools also give women access to unprecedented financial and social inclusion possibilities, paving the road towards a more just and safe world,” argued Enrica Porcari, head of the information technology department at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

A comparable initiative is the EQUALS E-Mentoring Platform, which matches girls interested in pursuing a STEM career with tech professionals who actively support them in their learning process and crucial soft skills development.

“Mentorship is when someone takes you under their wing to teach you how to fly,” said Sana Shiraz from Pakistan, who took part in the EQUALS initiative.  “When I started my journey as an entrepreneur, I didn’t really have a direction, which was demotivating. But my mentor guided me and helped me grow. Under her guidance, I found the right direction.”

ITU’s Women in Cyber Mentorship Programme seeks to boost women’s participation in one of tech’s key sub-sectors, where they currently make up just 24 per cent of the world’s cybersecurity workforce .

Taking action

The tech world needs collaborative solutions to help break barriers to digital access and improve online safety for girls and young women.

Here are a few ways you can support the movement to encourage more girls and women in STEM and ICT:

Learn more about Girls in ICT Day.

Image credit: DCStudio via Freepik

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