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Gender parity

What does an engineer look like?

Debra Walton  Managing Director, Customer Proposition, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

Debra Walton  Managing Director, Customer Proposition, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

The reason why technology needs more female role models.

There still aren’t enough women attending the annual Davos summit, but some of the ones who make it are truly inspirational.

This year, a little under 18 percent of delegates to this World Economic Forum meeting were female. It is never a large percentage, but what is particularly worrying is it is also remaining quite stable. Why have women not been progressing to the most senior levels of business?

Of course some incredibly powerful women attended Davos: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was here. So was Meg Whitman of HP. And the International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde captured many headlines too.

The fact remains however that the proportion of women to men in senior leadership roles has not changed significantly in the last two decades.

The topic of gender parity was a hot topic at Davos. As a passionate advocate I was encouraged to see this as such a mainstream issue. Clearly there are a number of challenges and potential solutions on this front to arrive at an inclusive culture. The one I think is the very key is the importance of female role models.

When women at the start of their careers look up, they should see people like them in senior roles. In fields such as engineering and technology, that is sadly unlikely.

So it was a real pleasure then to meet Niamh Scanlon at Davos this year, a 13-year-old from Ireland who began coding at the age of nine and now mentors others to develop new skills. She has built and marketed a number of apps already and is now embarking on a 12-month stint as the EU’s Digital Girl of the Year.

Deb Walton and Niamh

Niamh helped some of our Thomson Reuters colleagues to mentor 60 Davos schoolchildren in the rudiments of coding. Split into small groups, the children were taken through the basics of building a website and then wrote code for an electronic plant feeding device. The tasks were logical, practical and of course very rewarding. They were organized by CoderDojo, the not-for-profit organization that aims to encourage the next generation of coders, and hosted by our partners Salesforce.

What is particularly encouraging about Niamh is that she sees very clearly the need to share her knowledge, and to inspire and encourage other young people to take an interest in technology. She spoke about this eloquently and forcefully on an evening panel session with me at Davos, which also included the CoderDojo founder Mary Moloney and Suzanne DiBianca, the president of Salesforce.org.

We agreed we need more women of all ages to do this: to encourage their peers to take an active interest in the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Much of the discussion elsewhere at Davos involves diversity: the need to attract employees from a wide range of backgrounds, in order to properly reflect the world outside. Broad-based businesses build broad customer bases.

In this way diversity drives business performance. The greater the range of talent, and the more influences and insights they bring to the business, the stronger the company.

Women represent 60 percent of available talent in the workforce, so the fact that they represent fewer than one in five Davos delegates is very worrying.

In order for the gender gap to close in the still-male-dominated technology sector, we need to help young women to recognize they have potential to build their careers with us. We need to show the next generation of women that building a career in technology is possible and rising to its top is a practical and achievable goal. In short, we need to provide them with role models. We need to clear a path.

And that is the value of role models. They challenge assumptions. The next time you hear the word “engineer” in conversation, spare a moment to imagine what that engineer looks like.

That engineer should look like Niamh.

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