Thinking back over my long career at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), I remember arriving at my first-ever ITU Women’s Breakfast at the 1993 Regional Telecommunication Development Conference for Asia and the Pacific in Singapore.
This popular initiative, pioneered by a dear friend and colleague, Walda Roseman, became such a fixture at key ITU meetings over the past 25+ years. Female delegates got to meet and network with other women in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. It was especially valuable when we were much scarcer in number.
Today, after a year without face-to-face meetings, those opportunities seem far away.
Yet this year’s International Women’s Day is all about women’s leadership – the kind Walda showed.
Leadership has been high on my own agenda, too, both in my previous role as head of Strategic Planning and Management, and now as Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.
ITU’s roots as a highly technical agency has contributed to a marked gender imbalance, both in our staff demographics and in the number of female delegates attending ITU events. That’s changing – but we can and should take proactive steps to speed things along.
Noticing the chronic lack of women seeking leadership positions at ITU events (as chairs of committees, for example), we began organizing training sessions for female delegates as side-events to our conferences. Eventually, ITU partnered with the US Federal Communications Commission to co-organize the WeLead mentoring programme for the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15).
Momentum grew, culminating in the first Network of Women (NoW) programme led by the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau. I want to build on the success of that initiative with the new NoWs we are launching across the world to accompany this year’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-21), set to take place on 8-19 November.
The NoW platform enables women to share experiences, learn from one another, and gain the expertise and confidence to assume active leadership roles at key ITU events.
As we launch a Network of Women in each ITU Region ahead of WTDC-21, I can already feel the excitement and passion women delegates are bringing to the process.
Our Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, was among the first leaders to join the International Geneva Gender Champion movement back in 2015. He maintains his commitment to reforming internal practices, helping countries raise awareness, and promoting ICT careers for women. All ITU Directors are working actively to advance opportunities for women and break barriers, including unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion.
A virtuous circle
Promoting women’s leadership creates a virtuous circle, paving the way for more women and girls to embrace the exciting opportunities in the fast-growing technology space. As the actor, gender advocate and former ITU Envoy for Women and Girls, Geena Davis, said: ”If she can see it, she can be it.”
This year, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Girls in ICTs movement.
As we increasingly see over the last decade, female role models in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can inspire young girls and help women gain confidence in their own abilities and potential.
ITU founded the EQUALS Global Partnership with such empowerment in mind. The EQUALS Leadership Coalition, led by the International Trade Centre and UN Women, is working to achieve gender equality in tech leadership by 2030. We are doing this by training and mentoring, facilitating better access to finance and funding, and identifying regulatory and policy barriers faced by women in ICTs.
Through Generation Equality and the work of the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation led by ITU and other partners, I hope that more women and girls, in all their diversity, will receive equal opportunities to safely and meaningfully use, design and exercise leadership in technology and innovation.
This year, recognizing the power of mentoring to bring about positive change, ITU is launching the Women in Cybersecurity Mentorship programme on International Women’s Day. This new initiative encourages women to ‘dive in and thrive in’ the fast-growing field of cybersecurity. It aims to give them knowledge, as well as courage, to take on challenging and exciting opportunities.
Nurturing a community of leaders
Diversity and inclusivity will pay off with better decision-making and better outcomes.
Let’s make gender parity our benchmark – not just for ITU, but for a world where each and every person can fulfil their dreams and reach their potential.
Walda Roseman’s efforts were instrumental in putting gender onto the digital industry’s agenda. I look forward to being able to gather once again, when we can celebrate the power of community and the potential of ICTs to promote ever-greater global inclusiveness.