digigirlz
Technology Planning and Analysis

Inspiring Tomorrow's DigiGirlz in Central & Eastern Europe

With roughly 420 million people in 32 countries, the Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) region has tremendous potential in terms of leading in technology innovation and also in technology consumption. This potential, however, is based on the premise that each local government - as well as private organisations - embrace technology on a national scale and implement programs that support young talent and local technology companies.  And one CEE country, Estonia, serves as role model for this ‘embrace’ approach.

Estonia is considered one of the most advanced e-societies in the world; understanding the benefit and efficiency of technology to ensure a better quality of life for citizens, the Estonian government has been driving technology adoption to improve efficiency and services for the last 20 years. The whole country is covered by high-speed fibre optic broadband and there is free Wi-Fi available in 1200 public places including trains and long distance bus journeys. It became the first country to allow online voting in a national election in 2005, with almost a quarter (24.3%) of votes cast online in the 2011 parliamentary election and a fifth (21.2%) in the 2013 local elections. What’s more, almost all of the country’s public services are accessed online across any device – m-parking, e-health, e-police or e-prescription.

Estonia’s love affair with technology certainly doesn’t stop there. In 1996, the Tiger Leap Foundation was launched to support ICT in schools, offering extra-curricular programming lessons for students as young as six. Programming and the basics of application development is also an option on the national curriculum for high school students to better prepare those taking on scientific subjects at university. The country’s commitment to innovation has not gone unnoticed on an international level either, with both NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and the EU Agency for large-scale IT systems based in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn.

Estonia serves as a shining example of the broader region’s potential to drive innovation for the benefit of its citizens. However, this potential will be significantly stymied if we don’t ensure there is a robust pipeline of young talent looking to change the world by driving innovations in technology. 

The technology sector shows strong job growth around the world and Europe is no different. In the EU there are expected to be 900,000 vacancies for ICT specialists by 2015 (European Commission, 2013). Yet despite this projected growth in a time when unemployment rates remain unacceptably high, filling these roles will be a real challenge. Forty per cent of companies currently trying to recruit ICT specialists report having difficulties in doing so (European Commission, 2013); the issue of finding workers with the right skills and qualifications will become harder still. 

A major contributing factor to this skills shortage is that many students today don’t believe a career in technology is an option to them.  And this problem is especially acute among females.  Indeed, just 29 out of 1000 women with a Bachelors or other first degree hold a degree in ICT, compared to 95 out of 1000 men. Yet, only 4 in 1000 women will eventually work in the ICT sector (European Commission, 2013).

And why is that?  Unfortunately, certain gender stereotypes about what kinds of people work in technology stubbornly persist.  Relatedly, there are still misconceptions about science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) related subjects as somehow more suitable for boys. That’s simply not true.

The time to address the under-representation of women in the technology sector is now. Recent figures from the European Commission show that if women held digital jobs as frequently as men, European GDP would be boosted annually by around €9 billion (European Commission, 2013).  Failing to engage young women hurts our sector’s competitiveness, slows the region’s return to growth and is a disservice to thousands of talented young people who have the potential to make remarkable contributions to their communities and to society.

The region’s competitiveness relies on investors and companies being able to tap into a growing pool of talent – increasingly this is tech talent.  A diverse range of students must be encouraged to pursue STEM subjects and to apply their digital skills in a business context – providing the ideal platform for strengthening CEE’s competitiveness.

For the past two weeks we have been engaging with more than 3000 young women in the region, running DigiGirlz Days in 18 CEE cities.  DigiGirlz Days provide talented female students with an opportunity to meet successful women in the ICT field and hear first-hand about their experiences.  In addition, the Days help these students get hands on with some of the latest technology that we’ve developed.  We know from the DigiGirlz Days held in our region, and in other countries around the world, that these events can have a profound impact on the participants – breaking down stereotypes, dispelling myths and opening young minds to a world of possibilities. 

Microsoft has been encouraging female students and entrepreneurship through global technology competitions such as the Women's Athletics App Challenge competition where the winning Serbian team this year created Playground, a Windows Phone 8 application to keep students active and exercise while playing. These initiatives not only demonstrate the female talent coming from the CEE region, they also show that weaving STEM subjects into broader curricula will better equip young women to enter into the modern workforce.

Obviously, DigiGirlz is just one program that must be supported via broader efforts by both the public and private sector.  But for the 3,000 talented students we reached here in CEE, we hope it helps them along the path to something truly amazing.

 

Don Grantham is President of Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe

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