October 17, 2017

Where are the digital csarinas for Europe? Sheryl, please help!

Digitalization and its fundamental implications are dominating the news. The OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2017 launched last week criticized government policy has not kept pace with the digital innovation and transformation of economies and societies. Chancellor Merkel stressed its urgency in her very first statement after her reelection positioning herself as an ‘e-believer’. The Tallinn Digital Summit underlined how essential it is for Europe to embrace technological change to ensure a prosperous and sustainable future. What is completely missing though is the daunting digital gender divide and its exclusionary mechanisms; i.e. the simple fact that women are not really participating – and as a consequence – severely missing career chances.

95% of today’s jobs include a digital aspect according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) – with rising tendency. Nonetheless only a third of the 70 million people working in the digital sector in Europe are female. If women would start to really ‘lean into’ (pun intended) the digital jobs market this could create an annual €9 billion GDP boost in the EU. The WEF draws a gloomy picture: Men could gain one new job for every three jobs which might get lost through digitalization. Women, on the other hand, are threatened to only gain one but lose five jobs.

A persistent — and widening — digital gender divide

Concerning the Internet user gender divide, it appears to be widening according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), growing from 11% (2013) to 12% at the end of last year, with more than 250 million fewer women online globally than men. The Initiative D21’s Digital Index is alarmed that women tend to have a more limited understanding of digital terminology like big data, cloud or cookies, and less expertise in dealing with applications. On an international scale, Germany only ranks in the middle in terms of women’s digital literacy – quite a shame for a country with high pride for the quality seal ‘made in Germany’.

Projections for 2030 do not bring consolation: By then every third university leaver in China will have graduated within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in India 26.7% – but only 1.4% in Germany and 0.8% in France – with no indications of a growing female participation.

The job world does not tell a different tale. There are still very few women involved in the development of Information and Communications Technology. In Germany, only 15% of all employees in mathematical and technical professions are women. Women don’t even make up one in ten ICT managerial positions.

As women do not magically become tech leaders after reading a Forbes article when they are 30, it has to start young. Part of the answer lies in policies to encourage participation in education and promoting girls’ increased engagement in STEM subjects in schools and universities. Governments and enterprises need to be more proactive in helping women to become active members of the digital economy. Grass-roots efforts to attract women to the field like Girl’s day, the largest career orientation project for female students in Germany, or Girls Who Code, a software engineering training program in the US, are showing traction – but there could be more.

Even the Valley strongly skews male

Unfortunately the status quo in the cradle of digitalization – the Silicon Valley – isn’t better.

Among Silicon Valley’s 150 largest companies, only 15.3% of board seats were filled by women in 2016, compared with 21.3% for companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, according to Equilar.

A lack of diversity permeates many parts of the tech industry but boardrooms are extremely relevant levers as power centers to help spur broader changes. Whilst the annual study “Gender Diversity in Silicon Valley” shows an upward trajectory on the level of women directors, it finds the Valley is still lagging behind: The average percentage increased to 14.1% in the SV 150, whereas it rose to 23.1% in the S&P 100. With all due respect for the tech giants’ investments – Google for example spent a total of $US264 million on diversity and inclusion in 2014 and 2015 – there is still a long way to reach gender parity.

Why we need more Sheryl Sandbergs

Net-net: Women are underrepresented in the digital world – especially with regards to the super heroes of the tech revolution. There are @ElonMusk, @JeffBezos, @TimCook and the like – but there seems to be only one global ‘digital tsarina’, @SherylSandberg. Her tour to the Frankfurt Motor Show, the dmexco and the ‘me convention’ in September in Germany marked her again as an exceptional phenomenon. In her nine years as COO at Facebook she not only has helped create a $445 billion company, but she has also become a leading voice on what companies need to do to boost diversity and improve their culture.

Especially in Europe we clearly need more role models like Sheryl Sandberg or for example Bozoma Saint John (@badassboz) recently hired from Ariana Huffington (@arianahuff)as the Chief Brand Officer for Uber – continuously in the media regarding sexual harassment. For her no magical ‘Wizard of Oz’ exists to fix this problem. Instead, the tech industry as a whole must open their doors to women. She concluded her rousing acceptance speech as the ‘Executive of the Year Honor at Women In Music’ on a political note: “Regardless of the political climate, we’re not waiting ’til next time,” she said. “This is our time – I ain’t sorry.”

To make gender parity a reality we need to switch gears fast. Companies, as divers and inclusive managed companies are more successful (McKinsey calculates a diversity dividend of 15%) plus the fact that heterogeneity in values, beliefs, and attitudes broaden the range of perspectives in the decision making process and stimulate critical thinking and creativity. For the users of technology, as products might be better with the female lense on userbility and design. And for women themselves. They need to build their digital footprints, access the digital world and grap the chances the current disruption brings. It is a must for women to build their assertiveness and their awareness of their power and to open the door to the digital ecosystem.

Otherwise the digital gender divide will not only persist but women might be left behind.

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