A conversation with ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin
Doreen Bogdan-Martin took office as ITU Secretary-General on 1 January 2023. Her historic election by ITU Member States made her the first woman to head the 157-year-old organization.
With over three decades of experience leading global telecommunications policy, Ms. Bogdan-Martin explains how ITU is working to achieve gender equality, meaningful connectivity, and sustainable digital transformation for the benefit of all.
What have been your priorities on entering into office?
My top priority is to deliver on the strong mandate ITU Member States gave us at last year’s Plenipotentiary Conference. To drive universal connectivity and enabling sustainable digital transformation. To do that is to build a fit-for-future ITU.
That means strengthening the organization to make sure our members can meet connectivity needs and expand digital opportunities for everyone – especially the 2.7 billion people who’ve never used the Internet.
To get there, we will focus on three pillars: thought leadership, strategic partnerships, and organizational excellence.
Implementing this vision across all three of ITU’s complementary sectors – radiocommunication, standardization, and development – is my top priority.
Within the first 100 days of ITU’s new leadership team taking office, we’ve already kickstarted some of the main reform initiatives, such as our new Young Professionals Programme, and regular briefings with our staff our governing body, ambassadors in Geneva and New York.
On a recent trip there, I met with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who called on ITU to help shape the digital agenda within the UN system, together with our Member States. I aim to rise to that challenge as Secretary-General by pushing this institution to be even more agile, innovative and relevant – to ultimately help everyone, everywhere, embrace the huge opportunities connectivity and digital transformation bring.
You recently became an International Gender Champion – how will that inform your work as head of the UN’s tech agency?
I am fully committed to gender equality – and have been for a long time.
In fact, when the Geneva Gender Champions initiative (as it was initially called) was launched back in 2015, I was part of the initial discussions.
I also helped organize the Chief Executives Board session that ITU co-hosted with WMO in 2012, when we adopted the United Nations System-Wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP) gender equality scorecard. Let’s just say that ITU’s score wasn’t so good.
Six years later, I became the first woman to lead an ITU Bureau – we have five elected officials. When I was elected as Secretary-General of ITU last year, I broke a 157-year-old glass ceiling.
So yes, I’m proud to be an International Gender Champion.
But there’s still so much to do. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out in Davos this year, we heard how deepening inequalities “are affecting women and girls the most.”
The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted women and girls, and too many countries are backsliding on gender equality. At this rate, it will take another 286 years to close the global gender gap!
Not to mention the staggering digital gender divide: close to 260 million more women are offline than men. In the developing world, just 1 in 4 women are online, LDCs 1 in 5 – these are the stark realities that inform our work at ITU.
Are you seeing progress in terms of women’s representation, both in leadership and other roles?
Put simply, progress towards gender equality is not being made fast enough.
Don’t get me wrong – there have been promising starts. International Geneva has made excellent progress, with women now leading WTO, UNCTAD, UNAIDS, ITC and ITU.
But stronger action is urgently needed – particularly in the tech sector, where the representation of women is far too low – especially in leadership roles in emerging fields such as AI, quantum computing, cybersecurity, the metaverse, just to name a few.
The lack of women in these fields can have major socio-economic consequences. This can also lead to the widespread gender bias we’re seeing in machine learning and AI applications, from medical imaging to algorithmic decision-making. The examples are many.
Faced with such challenges, what concrete steps is ITU taking to promote gender equality in the digital sphere?
Closing the gender digital divide is at the heart of ITU’s work to achieve digital inclusion. ITU is working on several initiatives. Let me share just three examples:
- ITU co-founded EQUALS, a global, multi-stakeholder initiative of over 100 partners focused on closing the gender digital divide. We highlight women-led initiatives doing this on the ground through the EQUALS in Tech Awards, which recognize women’s leadership in tech SMEs, digital skills, access to technology and research.
- We’re also behind Girls in ICT Day – an annual global celebration encouraging more young women and girls to study STEM – this year, it is coming up on April 27th. This year’s theme – “digital skills for life” – is all about equipping young women and girls with the competencies they need to excel in STEM and STEAM, whether by pursuing education in those fields or embarking on a tech career.
- We also need more women at the digital policy table – not just sitting there to make some kind of quota or to get the photo op right – but to actually lead those key conversations and decisions. That’s why ITU has launched Networks to support women in our radiocommunication, standardization and development sectors. These communities aim to train, support and mentor women delegates to take on leadership roles in ITU’s major conferences – including the treaty-making ones, such as the World Radiocommunication Conference coming up at the end of this year.
Finally, when it comes to bridging the digital gender gap – and achieving our strategic objectives more generally – we must move from words to action.
This is the idea behind our Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, which has already mobilized over USD 17 billion worth of gender-focused initiatives to close the digital divide.
That level of investment, backed by gender-disaggregated data and multilateral cooperation, can and does create tangible impact on the ground.
I’m convinced this is the way forward to ensure that everyone – women and men, girls and boys – has an equal chance at benefiting from and building our shared digital future.
This interview was originally published in newSpecial, March 2023.
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