With the global shortage of skilled professionals in Information and Communication Technology, or ICT, why are so few girls pursuing careers in this lucrative and fast-growing field? This is not only a question of equal opportunity, but one of economic necessity. We will not be able to compete effectively in the increasingly global and technologically sophisticated economy if we do not harness the full human potential of all our people.
Today, we are pleased to be joining the ITU (International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency) in celebrating Girls in ICT Day. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, will be joining UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, and many others in New York City today to discuss ways we can encourage young women around the world to play a greater role in the technology revolution. By raising the awareness among girls about the many rewarding aspects of a career in ICT and awakening companies to this under-tapped talent pool, we hope more and more girls will be drawn into ICT-related careers.
Although significant issues remain for high-income countries, in developing countries both the opportunities and challenges for girls in ICT may be even greater. ICT will certainly be an integral element of these countries' growth stories through improved efficiency, access to new markets, and the creation of new IT-related jobs. And, with the sector still in its infancy, there is an opportunity to recast the IT profession in gender-neutral terms. In many ways, ICT jobs may be ideal for the complex demands women face, as the possibility of flexible hours and remote location can accommodate other responsibilities women may have in the home. Further emphasizing the potential impact, research recently published by the World Bank indicates that the wage gap between men and women is more significantly impacted by the lower-paying job sectors women pursue than wage differences between similar jobs.
However, three significant barriers remain for women and girls: gaining access to mobile phones and the Internet; developing the necessary skills through STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education; and obtaining the support and mentorship needed to flourish in ICT professions.
The mWomen Program (launched by Secretary Clinton and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development) was precipitated by a landmark study by the GSMA and Cherie Blair Foundation which found that women are 21 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men in low- and medium-income countries. Indicators point to the gender gap for Internet being even higher. Lack of access can mean lower familiarity, skill, and interest in the technologies that underpin ICT careers.
Education, particularly in the STEM disciplines, is also critical to developing the underlying skills required for a career in ICT. While girls generally show equal or better performance in STEM classes, cultural factors can dissuade them from further studies. Men continue to dominate the study of science and engineering in virtually every country. The NeXXt Scholars Initiative is an innovative program that attempts to address some of these cultural barriers by encouraging promising girls in countries with a Muslim-majority population to pursue a STEM education in women's colleges across the United States and provides mentorship, networking and skill development workshops through the New York Academy of Sciences.
Finally, even once they have embarked on a career in ICT, women face challenges working in an all-too-often male-dominated environment. Ongoing mentorship and support can be a significant factor in a woman persisting and flourishing as an ICT professional. Opportunities like TechWomen, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), identifies emerging women technology leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to participate in a professional mentorship and exchange program at leading U.S. technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2011, TechWomen's inaugural year, we saw first hand how providing women with encouragement, guidance, and inspiration can make all the difference.