September 5, 2012 - 4:51 pm

Vicki MacLeod is an international consultant in communications policy and regulatory issues.  She is a representative on the OECD’s Business and Industry Advisory Committee.

Careers in communications and technology are for everyone, including women. But we need to show girls the benefits of a STEM eduction – science, technology, engineering and math – and provide role models to guide their path.

As a child I used to look forward each Christmas to receiving the latest Girls’ Annual – a collection of stories about an intelligent, independent young heroine, who solved everyone’s problems in the course of her day. These larger than life characters (including Cherry Ames, a nurse, and Vicki Barr, a mystery-solving flight attendant) showed how women could use their brains and personal skills to lead exciting lives while making a real difference in the world.

The numbers of young people studying science and technology are declining, as are the numbers of girls in particular choosing to enter the ICT industry. This will leave a serious skills shortage as more of the pioneers of this industry reach retirement age. A lot of attention is being given to this issue by governments and industry around the world. Everyone agrees there is a problem; the question is what do we do about it?

Perhaps the time is right to update these role models for the current generation of young girls. We need to find a new way to get them interested in studying ICT and applying it to some of the world’s most pressing economic and social issues.  How many young girls, busy “thumbing’’ their smartphones, and updating their Facebook pages, make the link between this miraculous technology and how it could be used to deliver healthcare, education and social services to the disadvantaged? Which of them can see beyond the thrill of following their favorite music or TV star on Twitter, to understand how this type of immediate, person-to-person communication, could be used to break down the social isolation of those living in rural and remote locations, or the house-bound elderly? And which amongst them are thinking of how they could develop apps to tackle some of these issues, and by doing so create employment opportunities for themselves and others?

I have been working for the past twenty years with other women in the Global Telecom Women’s Network (GTWN). During this time our relatively small group of telecommunications and media professionals have sought to raise the profile of senior women in the ICT sector, while also inspiring other younger woman to follow their example. We recently published a book, called The Changing Culture of Communications, highlighting the achievements of many of these women and showing how they have made a difference to the world through their involvement in ICT.

But the challenge remains to make the link in young girls’ minds between these success stories and their own lives, aspirations, and interests. And to make this link early enough to influence their choice of subject and career. Perhaps one answer may be to revise the old Girls’ Annual idea, but in a modern and more relevant format, such as a smartphone app. This way we could give young girls inspiring stories and role models for the ICT sector. Cherry Ames the Chief Information Officer, or Vicki Barr the digital media entrepreneur, perhaps?

To learn more about women in ICT see: WISENET: the Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network