At the heart of the world’s most dynamic industry, the most intractable problems seem frustratingly related to people, not technology. Mostly, they seem to reflect inequality, inadequacy, inability, and yes, inclusion, in some form but on a global scale.
Solving issues of inclusion may prove a long, slow road to travel, but intriguing possibilities are emerging. There are many challenges, but also many trajectories. Perhaps the most visible remains the continuing gender gap within the ICT industry and, in many cases, its marketplace.
It’s a cruel irony: at the same time as many women and minorities are excluded (for many reasons) from participation in ICT, there is likely a major and continuing shortage of labor, a gap estimated at around two million jobs over the next decade. In April, we saw that awareness helped in getting focus on the problem: the Girls in ICT Day initiative backed by the United Nations can now claim attention–and initiatives–in 170 countries. We also saw the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) continue to add resources and data to various evaluations of inclusion and outreach.
ICT has a multi-dimensional problem
When it comes to driving a greater involvement of women in the ICT sector itself, part of the problem is knowing where to begin. The issues are clearly multi-dimensional, taking in a variety of roles, influences, responsibilities, and obligations. Some experts say there are four key questions to be asked: what can men do to improve the situation, what can women do, what can ICT organizations do, and what should be the role of educators and parents?
Clearly, there are many stakeholders who should be involved. The challenge is also multi-levelled, plaguing entry-level and boardroom participation alike. In developed countries, sophisticated ICT businesses are strategizing that gender balance is inherently an effective business differentiator. Major thought leader consultancies have also identified it for the corporate agenda. Inclusion could be very good for business: recent research cited in these studies indicates a 50 percent uplift in team performance for those organizations driving an inclusive agenda. It remains a mixed picture, however. A big picture perspective released late last year showed gender diversity in the workplaces of developed countries may have actually stalled for the first time in recent years.
In the corporate environment, a relatively complex and nuanced framework is required if these objectives are serious ones. Proposed frameworks reach deep into management structures and involve strategic intent, leadership behaviors, a culture of inclusivity, and talent actions. More outreach and education are needed. Informal communication matters too. Personal stories can clearly help. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has been running a series of podcasts to discuss diversity in the community. In April, Congresswoman Norma Torres reflected on her own American journey from a 911 operator to congresswoman in Washington, D.C.
Getting attitudes changed within ICT is necessary, but getting women involved in the ICT industry presupposes they have access in the first place.
In many cases, and in many places, they don’t.
Here, the impact of inequality is painfully present as it impacts many spheres of socio-economic activity. ICT is an economic locomotive, able to energize many other sectors. Connected individuals and communities can participate, create, develop, and–in every sense–empower themselves.
No ICT access, therefore, means no empowerment. Globally, around 250 million fewer women use the Internet than men. The African divide remains particularly problematic. If anything, in the last seven years it has probably widened. Reversing it will not be easy, but progress is being made towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here, we need to be looking at other systemic issues too. Access to financial services is important. The World Bank estimates that as many as one billion people lack access to basic bank account services in Asia alone. More specifically, it argues that we need to drive digital finance services in terms of usage as well as access. Improved digital access, particularly digital identification, could unlock up to 13 percent of GDP in some countries by 2030, reported one leading consultant, with half these economic gains accruing to the individual.
New horizons, new inclusions
Gender balance issues may be particularly evident, but most of us recognize a more widespread need to eject discrimination from the workplace. Here, some of the issues on the canvas are only now becoming visible. But hope is on the horizon; workplace inclusivity might be improving in other respects, albeit from a low base, according to a recent review of U.S. organizations.
The mood is generally an optimistic one, but it depends where you look. The ICT sector in this particular survey certainly makes the cut in promoting anti-discrimination practices for LGBTQ individuals, for example, but it remains far less progressive than other groups. This debate can only expand as we detect new areas such as neurodiversity on the frontiers of how we manage our organizations and our communities.