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In 2024, the International Girls in ICT Day, supported by the ITU, will be celebrated on April 25. For this year’s theme, the discourse will focus on ‘Leadership,’ underscoring the critical need for strong female role models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

In order for girls and young women to excel in STEM fields, it's crucial for them to encounter female leaders who can serve as sources of inspiration and help remove obstacles that impede their advancement. Telecom Review gathered the perspectives of notable women executives globally about encouraging empowerment and leadership development for a more equitable future in STEM.

Leadership Gender Gap in STEM

The gender gap in the STEM field persists, with women comprising only one third of the STEM workforce globally. This impacts innovation and progress within these fields. According to the Global Gender Gap Report (2023), women comprise only 29.2% of the STEM workforce in 146 nations evaluated, compared to nearly 50% of non-STEM occupations.

While there has been significant progress, a lot of work still needs to be completed holistically to address the significant gender gap, particularly in STEM leadership. STEM fields have historically been perceived as male-dominated, and stereotypes about gender abilities discourage women from pursuing careers in these areas. This leads to unconscious biases and discriminatory practices in recruitment, promotion, and evaluation processes.

Zooming in on a regional perspective, women in the MENA region are actively pursuing STEM degrees. A study by UNESCO indicates that 57% of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women and 61% of university STEM students in the UAE are female.

Prior to the International Girls in ICT Day, the UN’s International Women's Day celebration has placed the ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’ theme in the spotlight. With this in mind, ITU Chief, Doreen Bogdan-Martin—the first woman to serve this position in the organization's nearly 160-year history—highlighted the "huge" gender bias found in the popular AI algorithms of today.

She said that the major problem was that "women are less connected (and) women are less represented in this sector."

"When it comes to the data (the algorithms) we need to have more women at the table." In particular, she added, "we need to get more women in AI now."

In a study published by UNESCO, it was revealed that algorithms used by OpenAI and Meta showed "unequivocal evidence of prejudice against women."

A Call for Action

Overall, female executives from NEC, Ericsson, du, Nokia, PMP Strategy, and Huawei agree that the following steps can be taken to bridge the gap, break the stereotype, advocate inclusive opportunities, and ensure inclusivity:

  1. Early Exposure: Starting from home, parents can help combat the issue by ensuring that girls and boys have equal opportunities to engage in all types of play and learning. Introducing girls to STEM subjects from a young age, dismissing stereotypes, and highlighting successful females in STEM as role models will give a lasting impression to the youth.
  2. Education: Increasing the number of girls in the STEM field is crucial to address the significant gender gap in STEM leadership. This includes motivating and promoting STEM education among young girls through education and hands-on activities, like building robots, coding simple games, or participating in science fairs, and conducting internships. Schools can become a change agent and ignite interest in STEM from a very young age by introducing diverse role models and internships.
  3. Supportive Networks: Encouraging peer support, family connections, mentorship, sponsorship activities, and professional networks is very essential. A supportive network for women during the early stages of their careers in STEM can help them navigate their careers, access advancement opportunities, and grow their professional networks with other experienced leaders.
  4. Inclusive Work Environments: This further encourages girls to pursue STEM leadership, as they see that support will be provided throughout their career journey. This includes implementing policies that promote gender equality and actively address bias and discrimination. Flexible working hours, parental leave policies, and childcare support make it easier for women to maintain careers and leadership positions.
  5. Hosting Student Communities: Tech companies may look into creating and hosting student communities now that the digital native generation is involved.

Mayuko Tatewaki, Corporate Senior Vice President, Marketing and Alliance, NEC Corporation, concurs that, “Collective efforts from governments, education systems, and the industry are essential to bridge this gap and create a more equitable STEM landscape.”

In the same context, Majda Lahlou Kassi, Vice President, Head of Customer Unit West Africa and Morocco at Ericsson Middle East & Africa, cited that narrowing the gender gap includes initiatives such as their partnership with Technovation, which focuses on skills empowerment, and their ‘Connect to Learn’ program, which strives to support the education of women and girls, reaching over 400,000 students across 36 countries.

“At Ericsson, we have made steady progress over the past few years, particularly in increasing the number of women in senior positions,” Kassi shared. “At Ericsson, we foster a culture of equality and empower women to participate and thrive in STEM.”

Specifying several measures, Fatema Al Afeefi, Head of Employee Experience & HR Digitalization, du, said,  “Companies can actively work towards reducing gender bias by encouraging open communication, diversity training, and implementing policies that support work-life balance can also contribute to gender parity and foster a culture of respect and equality among employees.”

“Young minds are curious minds, and early intervention can help break down stereotypes,” commented Mobin Ashraf, Head of Market Operations MEA, Nokia. She further pointed out that, “At Nokia, we take pride in the achievements and contributions of women who have excelled in STEM roles. Their dedication and brilliance inspires us to reaffirm our commitment to fostering an inclusive environment, where women feel empowered to pursue and thrive in STEM careers.”

Annually, every October, Nokia recognizes an exceptional Nokia female talent in the field of STEM. This is in commemoration of the achievements of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. In pursuit of narrowing the gender disparity in technology, StrongHer serves as Nokia's global network for gender inclusion and diversity, boasting over 3,000 members and 40 active chapters worldwide.

“In environments where women are under-represented, self-confidence and self-esteem are even more important,” underscored Chrystelle Briantais, Founding Partner, Telecoms, Media & Technology (TMT), PMP Strategy. “Role models and confidence-building are crucial, and establishing mentorship programs and family-friendly environments can enhance gender diversity, reshaping industry dynamics.”

In 2023, PMP Strategy achieved a laudable score of 99/100 on the French government's equity index—a testament to the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Today, PMP Strategy has appointed four female partners (two in the Infrastructure and Technology sectors and two in the Financial Services sector). The company has also established an internal Diversity Council, which promotes these principles across global offices.

In harmony, Afke Schaart Taghzout, SVP & Chief Global Impact, Huawei, believes that “closing the gender gap in STEM fields requires a multifaceted approach from all sectors of society, to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create pathways for women to thrive and succeed.”

Most Impactful Experience

In a world where diversity and inclusion are becoming increasingly recognized as essential pillars of progress, women have navigated the often challenging landscape of the ICT sector. Throughout this journey, they have embraced the responsibilities of leadership and witnessed the transformative power of inclusion and representation.

There is nothing more impactful than witnessing a customer achieve innovation with the technology and services we provide,” Tatewaki exclaimed. “Experiencing customer interaction firsthand has kept me going even through tough times.” Having joined NEC Corporation in 1991, Tatewaki has amassed over 30 years of dedicated service to the company. Throughout her tenure, she has held diverse sales roles and assumed leadership positions in overseas business strategy.

“Throughout my 25-year tenure at Ericsson, I've been privileged to witness, firsthand, the profound impact of cultivating diversity within our organization,” Kassi added. She previously served on the Diversity & Inclusion board in the Mediterranean region and contributed to meaningful change initiatives. “As we chart our course forward, our commitment to increasing the representation of women to 30% by 2030 reflects our unwavering dedication to fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging,” she asserted.

“The most impactful milestone I can share is breaking through the glass ceiling and proving that gender should never be a barrier to success, inspiring other women to strive for leadership roles and driving positive change in the industry,” Al Afeefi declared. She is glad to lead and have the opportunity to work towards “creating an inclusive and equitable work environment at du,” where Emirati women make up 50% of the overall UAE national workforce.

Ashraf characterized the choice to pursue an ICT career as "not an easy sail," yet viewed it as a significant milestone in her professional journey. “Despite facing obstacles along the way, my passion for technology and determination to succeed have propelled me forward.” Even when her family was skeptical about her acceptance of an overseas job, her father was her biggest supporter, “His words still echoes with me—that opportunity may not knock on your door twice and you should grab it when it’s there.” Therefore, Ashraf encourages young girls to “take a leap of faith and get out of the comfort zone.” She further added that young girls should “challenge themselves to be at their best by breaking the barriers and the glass ceilings.”

Briantais proudly shared that one of her greatest milestones, so far, is being the sole female Founding Partner of PMP Strategy alongside five men. “This role empowers me to approach challenges with my unique perspective, and to strive for diversity of all kinds throughout the organization, so that we are better positioned to effect positive impact for our clients and society.”

From a sustainability perspective, Schaart is fascinated by how “technology can enhance our understanding of nature and support conservation efforts. She emphasized that “ICT plays a crucial role in monitoring and analyzing various habitats and biodiversity.” Huawei and its partners are collaborating closely to enhance the efficiency of nature conservation in over 300 protected areas globally through the integration of technology. “This concerted approach aids in safeguarding various species, ranging from the iconic pandas in China to the majestic salmons in Scotland, to protected bird species in Italy,” Schaart mentioned.

Proud Statements of Women ICT Leaders

Ultimately, this article serves as both a celebration of achievements and a call to action for greater gender equality and representation within the ICT sector. By sharing their stories and perspectives, we hope to inspire and empower other women to embrace their potential, challenge the status quo, and make meaningful contributions to a more inclusive and equitable future.

“As one of the female leaders in ICT, I take pride in breaking barriers, inspiring others, and connecting people like me with one another to encourage them to take the next step towards growth in this highly volatile and exciting technology field,” concluded Tatewaki.

Similarly, Kassi is encouraged by the fact that she can leverage her experience at Ericsson to “champion diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, recognizing that as leaders, we have a responsibility to lead by example and foster a culture of equality and empowerment in our organizations.”

Al Afeefi finds great fulfillment in her “ability to overcome stereotypes and pave the way for a more diverse and inclusive industry, where women can thrive, excel, and contribute their unique perspectives and talents to shape the future of technology.”

Ashraf expressed that her leadership journey is “fueled by creating a more inclusive ICT space through conscious hiring decisions and leading by example, resulting in a diverse team with 35% female representation.”

Briantais is proud of the fact that she can leverage her non-technical background to “provide a different perspective on issues, showcasing the versatile applications of technology and supporting the next generation of female Partners at PMP Strategy.”

Last but not least, Schaart takes pride in being a woman in ICT by “leading the way with innovative methods to enact change and striving to create a positive influence on individuals, businesses, and the global community.” Seeing other women break down barriers and achieve groundbreaking successes in their respective fields is “incredibly inspiring” for her.

As an industry, we can move forward in a journey of empowerment, resilience, and transformation; a journey guided by the unwavering belief that diversity is not only a strength but also a catalyst for positive change within the ICT sector and beyond.

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