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Women in digital and high tech: a way forward

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The importance of women presence in the high-tech and digital sectors

Research shows that increased participation of women in the high-tech sector/digital sector will boost the economy and allow for their full participation in society; that more diverse teams lead to better decision-making, more innovative products and services,  resulting in better company performance, business and economic progress.

In practice the picture looks different – figures show that women are significantly underrepresented in the Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) as well as in the Digital Economy. European statistics show that only 1 in 3 STEM graduates is a woman; only 17% ICT specialists in the EU and only 19% of European ICT entrepreneurs are women; 93% of capital invested in European companies this year went to all-male founding teams.

Nevertheless the demand for digital talent in the 'digital future' – big data, robotics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, internet of things, … to mention a few is huge and growing so fast that recruiting more women will, on the one hand, help meet Europe’s increasing demand for digital experts/entrepreneurs and, on the other hand, contribute to the benefits created by gender-balanced workforces and leadership teams. 

FEMINA - female participation in high-tech enterprises

These brief explanations make it very clear - there was and still is a need for action! Here the Interreg Europe project FEMINA - female participation in high-tech enterprises – comes into play: 'FEMINA considers how to identify, implement, monitor and evaluate policy measures that break down barriers to female high-tech entrepreneurship, to employment and career progression in high-tech SMEs and to the gender dimension of innovation in funding schemes for high-tech start-ups and SMEs.'

What a huge, interesting, relevant and in COVID times even more important topic against the above background! Let's take a deeper look at FEMINA, which started in June 2018   a first policy change and an exciting new project based on the exchange between the project partners as well as several good practices.

From exchange of practices to change of policies

One starting point for changing the policy of the Multiannual Programme (MP) of the Chamber of Commerce of Arezzo, Italy, was the overall objective of the MP to support local businesses with a focus on innovation. The other one was the Committee for Female Entrepreneurship (IFE) at the Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the creation of female enterprises, supports already established female businesses and strengthens female roles within these. Finally,  the challenge was to strengthen the activities of the IFE and to combine gender and innovation. This is where FEMINA entered the stage, as the focus on women's participation in high-tech fields had been lacking until now.

The new project INVENTOR LAB was born with inputs from local/ interregional analysis, local stakeholder workshops and good practices exchanged within FEMINA:

Logo of Every Girl Everywhere project

Since 2017 the mission of this umbrella project in Romania 'is to ensure girls and women take up a digital career and that they are digitally literate'. The good practice EveryGirl Everywhere encourages girls and women to enter the digital workforce, building a new gender-balanced generation of digital leaders. The activities are manifold, e.g. meetups & events, workshops & trainings; hackathons and industry challenges. 
Of interest for transfer:   the hackathons - positively evaluated.

Regional Committee for Gender EqualityThe Regional Committee of Gender Equality, in Sterea Ellada (EL) is supporting and monitoring the integration of the gender dimension into the regional development strategies. The range of activities promoted by the Committee, acting as kind of consultancy organ involving the key stakeholders from the region, are various: e.g. creation of specific action plans, provision of services, events, awareness raising events. 

Of interest for transfer: the idea that activities can feasibly be supported by a regional committee. 
Logo of stem talent girl project

The good practice STEM TALENT GIRL (STG) and WOMAN AND TALENT (W&T) ASSOCIATION from Cantabria in Spain encourages female students to start careers in STEM, through mentoring/job shadowing initiatives. It includes talent scouting activities to select the most promising candidates to take part in the programme. STG is run in collaboration between public institutions and W&T which has been established by 5 private companies.

Of interest of transfer: the tools for evaluating the results of the hackathon.  

Inventor Lab: when female entrepreneurship meets innovation

The INVENTOR LAB was designed by a local stakeholder group established around the IFE Committee.  It was launched in 2019 to support the development of female entrepreneurship with a special attention to strengthening and increasing the number of female start-ups in high-tech/ ICT sectors. INVENTOR LAB is structured around a hackathon contest, where ideas for innovative business projects are developed by female students. The most promising ones are selected by an evaluation committee and two winning ideas are awarded a prize money to start initial business actions. 

The 'pilot hackathon' took place in February 2020, 4 teams participated, 2 were awarded the INVENTOR LAB prize for a total of EUR 5.000. Both teams are currently working on their projects. The activity was very well accepted by the students and local stakeholders. The feedback was positive, and all stakeholders agreed that boosting female entrepreneurship in the digital/ high-tech sector can be a key opportunity to innovate the local economy and that INVENTOR LAB can be the right tool to trigger this change. Anna Lapini, President of IFE, saw this initial impulse validated: 'Ideas from INVENTOR LAB bring new enterprise models, at a time when change, new ideas, new companies and cooperation are extremely necessary. With current male-driven business models having shown various weaknesses, it is now time to look at women’s strength as a driver to overcome the current crisis'.

The next steps

Following this positive outcome, the next edition (2021) is already under discussion. The focus is on establishing a structured mentoring service both to support applicants in the proposal preparation phase and to accompany the selected projects in the implementation phase. Those developments are being discussed with the project partners from Romania, Greece and Spain mentioned above, in the framework of the FEMINA project and the preparation by the Italian stakeholders of their Action Plan. 

Image credit: Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels