“My motto, my dream, my bumper sticker is to get every European Digital and my ambition is to get more women into ICT.” These are the words of Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission in charge of the digital agenda for Europe.

’Women in Innovation and ICT’’ was the theme of an event APCO co-organised with GlobalWIN (Global Women’s Innovation Network) in Brussels on 7 October, which brought together women passionate about ICT and innovation, all of whom are dedicated ambassadors of achieving gender balance.

A panel formed of Josephine Wood, a Member of Neelie Kroes’ Cabinet; Lucia Recalde Langarica, Head of Unit in the European Commission’s DG Education and Culture; Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion of Belgium and CEO of Ericsson Benelux; and Wendy Vermoesen, Young ICT Lady of the Year 2014 and Software Developer at RealDomen exchanged views on how to encourage more women to step into the ICT world and thrive, further unlocking the potential that technology can bring to the European economy and broader society.

The facts show that women are under-represented at all levels in the ICT sector, especially in decision-making positions. Efforts are being made, however, to secure the economic gains that come with greater gender balance in the work place. A study on women active in the ICT sector published in October 2013 by the European Commission found that allowing more women to enter the digital jobs market could create an annual €9 billion GDP boost in the EU. The ICT sector is rapidly growing, and it needs female competences to thrive. According to Saskia Van Uffelen, women see the world differently from men and this complementarity is particularly important in the world of innovation.

So how do we get more women into ICT careers? Inspiring role models are one factor. According to Saskia, we will not succeed if we try to change who men and women are. Those who can act as ambassadors for change should instigate a cultural shift so that everyone in the business world recognises the importance of female competences. We also need women who advocate to optimise the innovative potential of the ICT sector and demystify the fear of technology that people (usually parents) have, often due to the generational gap. Wendy Vermoesen’s passion for coding is particularly inspiring: for her, being able to create whatever she wants is “almost like magic”. She hopes that future generations will consider her job more as a creative career, far away from the computer nerd image in a garage often portrayed in mainstream media.

The problem sometimes goes back to a more fundamental philosophical discussion about girls needing to be educated and mentored to feel they are capable of achieving anything they put their mind to. Campaigns fighting back against these cultural prejudices – which often take root during those formative early years (9-12 years) – such as the U.S. “Like a Girl” campaign which addresses the impact of this term being misconstrued as a put-down has gone viral and moved millions of men and women. Indeed, “Science: It’s a girl thing!” has been one of the EU’s initiatives to combat this prejudice. More tangibly, the EU’s Euro 80 billion R&D project (H2020) stipulates a 40 percent minimum women quota on projects and looks set to reshape the R&D landscape over the next five year Commission mandate.

It was suggested that one reason technology is a male dominated sector is because men may have more experience in business management or be more likely to come from the engineering and finance/funding sector. In the business world, some women can lack confidence which perhaps explains, for example, the difficulty young female entrepreneurs often have securing funding for their start-ups. Encouraging initiatives to help women build specific skills, such as pitching a project to Venture Capitalists, could certainly be helpful.

Women cannot wait for men to step back. They need to ‘infiltrate the system’ and speak up. The change is happening and women need to “lean in” – in the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg – and be part of the conversation. This positive disruption can play a role by reinforcing the positive messages and putting all the opportunities of the sector into a new and more attractive light.

Claire Boussagol

Claire Boussagol, chairman, Europe and managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office has 26 years of experience providing strategic counsel and managing complex EU and French public affairs and communication assignments. Read More