Companies need skilled workers for digital transformation and women are especially in demand. However, to date too few girls and young women have shown interest in the training and studies in the STEM field – says Fabrizia Benini, Head of Digital Economy and Skills at the EU Commission and speaker at our conference Transform.
Mrs. Benini, Why do we have so few women in STEM disciplines and how serious do you consider this problem to be?
Well, I think the problem is serious. In the EU, only 19% of ICT specialists are women and, we don’t see this number going up. If the people building our Internet, and our data system are only men, the systems themselves will not reflect society as a whole. These systems need to be made by a diversified workforce, including women and minorities and need to reflect and serve the entire population. Apart from that a diversified workforce, it is also a matter of improving teamwork. When women work alongside men, they enhance the quality of the work that is delivered, because women’s approaches to finding solutions are different, and so, therefore, diversity is a perfect opportunity to welcome.
What can we do to solve this problem at least in parts?
Well, I think we need to put strategies in place that are long-term. We need to start in school, you know, offering coding classes for boys and girls early on. But we need to teach these disciplines to girls and women in a different way. Girls seem to be able to relate to particular issues, doing something for a reason, for a more significant purpose. For example, we learn how to do mathematics to improve the environment. That is the reason why girls learn mathematics for the environment. If you just tell them they are learning mathematics just for the sake of it, well, a smaller percentage of girls will become engaged. So, it is the way we are teaching that is important. But also the way in which careers are build, the way in which we support women in ICT who are a minority, must change a lot, especially because there are still pay gaps. Today, for instance, a female ICT expert earns, on average, 19% less than her male counterpart.
You and your team have analyzed the current situation with digital skills in the European Union. What are your findings?
Well, for details, I invite you to look at the Digital Economy and Society Index, which is an annual report that we issue. The index is broken down per EU Member State, and there is also a section that deals with the position of Europe vis-à-vis other countries, including Switzerland. For the last five years, an evident trend shows a digital skills gap that involves basic skills; 40% of the population do not have necessary digital skills when they access the internet; they do not understand what Fake News is and identity theft. So, really, basic things that would allow us to be more secure in the system. But there is also a very big gap as regards to advanced digital skills. For instance, we see that there are about one million vacancies for ICT specialists that are not filled, and that 53% of companies that have tried to recruit an ICT specialist last year did not manage. So much needs to be done.
What action is the European Commission planning to take to ensure that the gap does not continue to grow?
Well, again, it needs to be a long-term strategy and one which is divided and brought together with our Member States. We have encouraged each Member State to develop a national digital skills strategy and to implement it. And for our part, we have two strands of work which are dedicated actions that target specific programs, for instance Code Week, for coding in schools, digital skills and job opportunities which target university students to undertake digital courses for a period of time, or funding for universities to develop master’s courses and short-term courses. So, these are specific. And then we have all the major funding initiatives, the EU budget, through the social fund, and through the new programs, which are also quite significant.
Fabrizia Benini is Head of Unit for Digital Economy and Skills in the Directorate General for Communication Networks, Content and Technology of the European Commission. She held the keynote at the Transform Congress from the Berner Fachhochschule Wirtschaft which took place on September 12th-13th in Berne.
She is a lawyer by training and joined the European Commission in 1995 and has since worked in the Internal Market, Competition and Maritime Affairs Directorates Generals. She also served in the private office of Antonio Tajani, at the time Vice-President in charge of Entrepreneurship and Industry. Throughout her career she has worked on the intersection between regulatory frameworks and technological developments taking into account the users’ perspective. At present, her work focuses on the digital economy, its measurement and the impact digital development may have on the labour market and on skills. Currently one of her main tasks is to devise policy responses to the current digital skills gap.