Lessons from the first Commonwealth Women's Forum

In this contributed blog post, recent chair of the Women’s Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2015 Claire Cassar is CEO of HAUD, discusses the worldwide struggle for equality.

As a woman in the technology industry, it’s sometimes easy to forget that not only do women in other industries face challenges – some don’t even have the opportunity to become involved in any industry at all. I was fortunate to chair the first ever Commonwealth Women’s Forum this year, as part of the wider Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta – and it helped remind me that the struggle for equality is a global issue not just confined to the tech industry.

The theme of the forum was Women Ahead: Be All That You Can Be and aimed to come up with agreed targets and strategies, highlighting the importance of women’s participation at all levels of decision making. This would be presented to Ministers of Foreign Affairs ahead of the Heads of Governments meeting, and was attended by representatives from over 50 countries.

Women in tech are a growing minority – and those that reach the top of their organisations are far less common than those in many other fields. However, tech has no reason to be a closed shop to women and, with the right conditions and opportunities, women already within the industry can make it much more open and inviting for other women considering a technology career – and take a leading role in the process.

A consistent concern I hear from women in the tech industry is that we are not given the best opportunities to develop their ideas and impact on the industry. It can be a difficult path to take, however, with a lack of women role models to help develop your career in a way that women can relate to.

However the desire is there to change this culture. During the Women’s Forum we heard from Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief Strategic Planning and Membership at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She discussed how the ITU has had gender equality and mainstreaming policy in place since 2013, which is backed by all its 193 member states. The hope is that, through policy and action, the ITU can become a model organisation for gender equality in ICT. The ITU is also promoting gender equality in the tech sector through two major programmes; International Girls in ICT Day and the GEM-Tech Awards.

International Girls in ICT Day, held each year on the fourth Thursday in April, has encouraged 177,000 girls in 150 countries around the world to consider a career in ICT. Meanwhile the GEM-Tech Awards celebrate the organisational achievements to advance gender equality in the field of tech – and have had a wide takeup, with almost 150 nominees from over 50 countries to date. It is hoped that these programmes will be able to play a part in inspiring girls to take up a career in ICT, and provide a real incentive to advance gender equality in tech.

A lesson from CHOGM must be for women in all industries – but especially in tech – to take the opportunities that are there for them, and not to be apologetic about it. Laksmi Puri, Deputy Director of UN Women stressed the importance of this issue by calling women to “be bold and hold leaders accountable” to “put a firm expiry date of 2030 for gender equality.”

This can be difficult, however, with cultural values in some Commonwealth nations looking at our contributions outside the household less favourably. But the core aim of the event was to explain how women’s contributions can have a positive impact politically, economically and socially.

While pushing for more representation in the tech sector may seem trivial compared to some of the challenges facing women in other parts of the world, by being prominent and vocal in our industry, we can inspire women in these countries – many of which are beginning to experience their own technological boom.