EU Commissioner Viviane Reding keynoted the first meeting of the WiL Network, emphasizing the issue of the low retention rate of women in ICT. Against this background, the Commissioner talked about the efforts that the European Commission is dedicating, outlining some of the key initiatives undertaken by the EC, such as launching the “European Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT”.
All participants pointed out the need to change stereotypes and perceptions of “women and success or women in business” and normalize the perception of women’s roles in the industry and the workforce in general. Another point of discussion was enabling training for women who want to develop entrepreneurial skills and to offer support to access venture capitals.
As an informal network of stakeholders committed to making progress on this topic, the group offered a first concrete contribution by submitting to the EC the Compendium of Good Practices – a selection of best practices from the organizations that are part of the WiL network.
The session was opened by Thaima Samman (Microsoft), who gave an overview of the issues at stake, outlined the challenges that need to be overcome, as well as the raison d’être for this particular meeting. One of the challenges recognized by participants is the ever decreasing number of young women pursuing degrees and career paths in natural sciences, business and ICT. If this trend continues, the predicted shortage of qualified engineers in ICT sector will supersede 300,000 in the EU alone by 2010. Therefore, education and research, life-long learning, employability and entrepreneurship were identified as important topics in addressing this challenge.
Claudine Schmuck presented the role of the Women’s Forum, a forum which acts so as to highlight great business achievements of women, in particular now that business is infused with technology processes and products. However, women do not find these fields appealing. As she said, “the number of women with PhDs is growing significantly, however not in the area of science and technology”. One of the initiatives of the Women’s Forum is the “Sci-Tech Girls Programme”, where young girls get the chance to explore different career paths on offer and meet with role models, which can show them why it is important that girls pursue scientific careers. In her words, “We need to empower women so that they become key actors in the new information society. The change needs to originate in the women themselves.”
Marina Niforos and Martine Van Den Poel (INSEAD) offered the perspective of one of the leading business schools on why women are not often in the driving seat when it comes to creating businesses of their own and working their way up the corporate ladder. They recognized that success and business entrepreneurship of women is still perceived with levels of scepticism. They reiterated the message that an ever decreasing number of women are attending business schools. At the same time they stressed that it is of the uttermost interest to the business environment to have a diverse workforce: “Diverse environments often give birth to most innovative ideas”. They argued that some of the reasons that women are not managing to establish themselves as well as their male counterparts in the workplace are due to the fact that they often lack confidence, suffer from lack of talent development, feel isolated at the workplace or threatened by an aggressive corporate culture and are not ready to make the sacrifices required by the current work/life balance of many executives. They presented the program “Women Leading Change” as a way to address these issues and provide development opportunities to women who seek to transform both businesses and themselves. Another key component was a creation of a sustainable network of business leaders and role models, allowing the younger women to dip into a collective pool of experience and knowledge.
At lunch time, the group hosted the EU Commissioner Viviane Reding who drew attention to the fact that women are falling behind when it comes to technology careers, studies and research. She stressed the point that even when women start working in this sector, the retention rates remain quite low. She even referred to the “dry” image of the ICT sector in the eyes of young girls and women. They do not look at it as a “people environment” but rather as a “machines environment”. Against this background, the Commissioner talked about the efforts that the European Commission is dedicating to this problem. She outlined some of the key initiatives undertaken by the EC, such as launching the “European Code of Best Practice for working in ICT”. She then also referred to an initiative running already for two years in partnership with industry to enable girls to be in closer contact with the technology sector and to experience the ICT workplace through shadowing, education and seminars on career orientation. “Moving women out of the shadows” is a big societal problem, she stated, and there is also a role to play for parents and grandparents so as to picture ICT as a fruitful career for their children. The role and importance of “role models” was highlighted once more as a differentiating factor. “We need to create a positive image for ICT professionals, on TV and in the cinema – at the moment all the heroes are lawyers and economists, there are no ICT developers.”
Main Points from the Open Discussion
The main topics discussed in the open roundtable referred to education of young girls and women, as well as to the importance of fostering entrepreneurship mindsets and culture. The discussion highlighted the need to start educating girls early, also the need to close the technological gap between the generations. A point was made on educating parents and society in general with a view to help change stereotypes and perceptions of “women and success or women in business” and normalize the perception of women’s roles in the industry and the workforce in general.
Another point of discussion was entrepreneurship and access to venture capitals. In a recent UK survey of women who were starting a business, 25% said that they were afraid of success and 35% said they were afraid of failure. The need for training and support was highlighted as well as the need to address the problems faced by women that have been out of the workforce and who need support for their re-entry or for undertaking possible entrepreneurship ventures. There was agreement that these Women need support networks, know how, and targeted programs.
Many stigmas and societal stereotypes were also brought up, such as the idea that there is a stigma towards financial success; in general women feel that the financial side needs to be reconciled with their value system. Therefore, they need to have role models that are well remunerated but also engaged in the community. Women tend to operate by consensus ‘web model” rather than impose hierarchical decisions.
Outcomes and Next Steps
The session ended with a discussion on how to channel all of the ideas and build concrete next steps that will deliver solid solutions:
All participants agreed on the opportunity to continue the informal exchange and create a network of interested practitioners and stakeholders to work on the various topics linked to empowering women in the information society.
Interactions need to happen in between meetings, in an ongoing way and virtually. Microsoft committed to set up an online forum of exchange and communication for this community of interest.
All participants agreed that we need to segment our action by theme and delve deeper in specific topics’ discussions. Based on this point, there was a proposal to host the next meeting on June 11-12th and focus on the topic of female entrepreneurship and VCs.
Microsoft offered to host the meeting in the framework of its annual SME Day in Brussels. This event already provides an opportunity to convene several delegations of SMEs and Venture capitalists from across Europe (around 300 people). In this framework, a specific breakout session on Women entrepreneurship will be organized. The involvement and participation of representatives from the group is most welcome.
A second opportunity for continuing a thematic discussion on the topic of girls’ education in scientific studies will take place in the framework of the global award ceremony of the Imagine Cup Finals in Paris on July 8th. Microsoft and the Women Forum will gather a delegation of around 20 talented young women thinking about fostering their studies in technology studies and have them meet with 15-20 young female students for an exchange on their views and expectations on scientific studies and careers’ perspectives. A press conference and an awareness campaign will be promoted in this occasion.
The group committed to support the EC initiative presented by Commissioner Reding on the “European Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT”. As an informal network of stakeholders committed to making progress on this topic the group agreed to offer a first concrete contribution by submitting to the EC the Compendium of Good Practices – a selection of best practices from the organizations that are part of our informal network initiative.
Pinuccia Contino (European Commission) shared a blueprint for what she felt constituted a great project. She felt that it needs to be built on needs that are identified in advance, as well as the target group and a great communications model, such as the one used in a Commission funded project in Norway helping to integrate Pakistani women into the society.
Herta von Stiegl (Stargate Capital Investment Group) urged the women to put their money where their mouth was and create a community of men and women who are ready to fill the equity gap between men and women who set up their own businesses.
Odile de Chalendar (French government) suggested setting up a community, where all the participants of the workshop could collaborate, commit themselves to particular challenges and together build a success story that will help prevent sexist attitudes and promote open minds.
It was also agreed that each of the participating members will provide at least two examples of the work being done in their countries, so that they can build on existing practice and not duplicate the work. At the same time this compendium will provide them with sufficient ammunition to “burst at least some of the myths” that still exists today when it comes to women and leadership.