On 17 November, Geena Davis, ITU Special Envoy for Women and Girls in ICTs, gave a speech to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the theme of ‘Women and Technology: Increasing Opportunity and Driving International Development’ where she stressed the importance of gender equality in technology.
I have spent most of my adult life advocating for women and girls in various capacities: as a trustee for the Women’s Sports Foundation, as Chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, as a partner with UN Women and as ITU Special Envoy for Women and Girls in ICTs. The empowerment of women and girls is an issue I’m extremely passionate about, and is why I founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media which studies gender in children’s media to help women and girls be seen and heard across the globe.
My Institute’s tagline is ‘if they can see it, they can be it’. Women and girls will seek the skills to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career opportunities if they can see other women in these roles and be inspired by them. The lack of real-world female role models in technology careers means that it is imperative to have fictional characters in STEM fields in the entertainment media aimed at children.
Yet, our 2014 study on the careers of female characters in family films, prime time and children’s television across 11 countries, conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, shows that women and girls are missing from critical occupational sectors such as STEM. Out of nearly 6,000 speaking characters in family films, men hold 84 per cent of all STEM jobs – this calculates into a ratio of five male STEM characters to every one female STEM character. No female leads or co-leads are shown with STEM careers in family films, and television, characters with STEM jobs are 79 per cent male and 21 per cent female.
The vast gender inequality in media aimed at children is of significant importance as TV and movie images can wield enormous influence on how cultures perceive the value of women and girls and in establishing societal norms. Improving these perceptions can be the real game changer in achieving greater empowerment and participation of girls and women in the technology sector.
We have the opportunity to ensure that women and girls are fully included in the expansion of the digital world, and that their voices shape the agenda to meet Sustainable Development Goal 5, ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Access to digital technology will be key to meeting this goal, by providing women with the means to educate themselves and their children, improve their own health and the health of their families and communities, start their own businesses, and innovate to build and shape the future they want.
In order to do this, we need to address some key challenges.
We need to improve the gender digital divide. Data suggests that over 1.7 billion women do not own a mobile phone and there were 200 million fewer women online than men at the end of 2013. Ensuring that women and girls are included and have the same opportunities as men and boys around the world is critical, especially when it comes to access to the Internet. Technology has tremendous potential to transform women and girls’ lives, whether it be through STEM career choices or access to services such as e-health, e-education, e-commerce, e-banking and other applications and devices that can help girls and women address their day-to-day challenges.
We need to bridge the opportunities gap. Women earned only 18 per cent of all undergraduate computer science degrees in the USA, and women make up only 30 per cent of the European ICT workforce. This must change, especially given the predicted skills shortfall of at least two million jobs in the ICT sector globally by 2020. Encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in technology is critical to closing the economic gender gap. Moreover, studies have demonstrated that companies with a gender balance in high-level leadership positions and on corporate boards have improved financial results.
I want to see a world where woman and girls are valued equally to men and boys and have the freedom to pursue and achieve their dreams; a world where all children have the same possibilities and opportunities as my children. And it is in all of our best interests to do so.
This blog is based on Geena Davis’ speech to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at the hearing on ‘Women and Technology: Increasing Opportunity and Driving International Development’. The full speech can be found here.
Geena Davis is an Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actress and one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, appearing in several roles that have become cultural landmarks. She is also a world-class athlete (at one time the nation’s 13th-ranked archer), a member of the genius society Mensa, and is becoming recognized for her tireless advocacy of women and girls nearly as much as for her acting accomplishments. She is the founder of the non-profit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (@GDIGM), which engages film and television creators to dramatically increase the percentages of female characters — and reduce gender stereotyping — in media made for children 11 and under.
Davis is Chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women, ITU’s Special Envoy for Women and Girls in ICT and an official partner of UN Women, working toward their goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women worldwide. She holds honorary degrees from Boston University, Bates College and New England College.