27 January 2005

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Government's Lm100 million ICT investment ‘bearing fruit'
• bid to boost female participation in new economy

Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina, speaking at Friday's Women and Men in the ICT Labour market seminar, applauded the ICT revolution Malta has undergone over the past decade, while also praising Malta's public service for ranking top among the new EU states in the e-Europe initiative.
“Government's investment of close to a Lm100 million is bearing fruit, as evidenced by the increasing take-up of technologies,” she explains.   “However, it is also a known fact that there is still an untapped ICT potential that needs to be addressed, if we are to attain the full benefits of economic competitiveness, innovation and social inclusion.
“Malta's need to increase competitiveness is necessarily coupled with a growing need for assimilating and exploiting new skills and technologies and keeping abreast of the rapidly evolving scenario.”
The Lisbon Strategy set out objectives to create a competitive and inclusive knowledge-based economy in Europe, with ‘more and better jobs' as a main target.
The Strategy's key goals include an increase in the participation of women, improving the inclusion of people with disabilities and ‘older workers'. Information Technology offers new opportunities for everyone, especially women.
“There is no room for discrimination in the new knowledge-based society - both for social and economic reasons,” Cristina says.   “All human potential and available talent is to be utilized. In the drive towards eliminating old gender inequalities, support is being provided across the board through policies on education, participation and ownership, IT training, and the creation of family-friendly policies in the workplace.
“Our National Action Plan on Poverty and Social Exclusion pays particular attention to women and men at risk of exclusion. These may include older workers, mothers with young children, low-income earners and the unemployed, as well as women and men with disabilities. By addressing access and mobility challenges, we will help women and men back into the workforce, help them find new working methods that allow for balance between work and family life, increase flexibility and improve job satisfaction and the quality of life.”
Cristina cites educating children from an early age as crucial in shaping attitudes and setting the stage for the elimination of stereotypes in this particular area. In 2004, out of a total number of 1,460 students studying ICT, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Electronics Engineering at MCAST, only 8.4 per cent were girls. However, this number shows a significant increase over the 2003 figures. At the University of Malta, the picture is becoming more positive each academic year. Female participation amounts to over 60 per cent of all students, this year.   At the last graduation, about one third of all graduates in the IT related courses were women. This said, however, there seems to be an under-utilization of women in the labour market.   The Labour Force Survey estimates the number of female workers at 15 per cent out of a total of 1,200 listed under ‘computing and related activities'.
“An increased participation of women in IT would not only benefit women, but is also crucial in reaching the Lisbon goals for full employment and sustainable economic growth by the end of this decade,” Cristina advises.   “Initiatives aimed at addressing the need for skilled IT workers will aid social equity goals by helping women and men to access a broader range of better-paying jobs. We would also like to see that women's roles will include ownership, control and management in the IT sectors. Real changes will have taken place when we are able to see women in top decision-making roles.
“Across Europe, although the participation of women in IT has been low throughout the 1990's, some occupations and industries have reported significant progress in increasing the number employed in this sector. This indicates that there are proven ways to meet the goal of greater female participation in IT.”
Among the barriers faced by women are societal attitudes, lack of parental and peer support, gender bias, discrimination, harassment, lack of opportunities for early work experiences and apprenticeships, and lack of supportive policies and practices, particularly in some places of work.
But, Cristina warns, “Meeting changing labour needs requires a cultural shift .   Employers need to understand that by drawing more fully on the total labour force, more qualified and skilled workers will be employed in this area. Having a highly skilled work force results in higher productivity and better quality products and services. Furthermore, increasing the competition for IT jobs, by fully utilizing the female labour pool more effectively, will inevitably mean that the ‘most capable persons' will be doing the important jobs, improving productivity overall. Such a culture shift requires many changes in the practices of employers and attitudes in general.   More young women and men must be encouraged to study math and the sciences or pursue technical employment or IT career options. Making ECDL (European Computer Driving) compulsory for entrance to particular jobs is a right step in this direction.   Working in IT facilitates flexitime, job sharing and teleworking, practices that in particular could help people with mobility problems or with limited time available for work.   Such jobs may help these people away from isolation and aid fairer work practices.”
Cristina believes an action plan for all stakeholders should aim to involve all key partners, with well-defined roles, in increasing the participation of women in IT, which should be done while ensuring there wouldn't be a gender wage gap in the labour segment.
“Such action will also favour women's self employment and entrepreneurship, acknowledged as a policy priority in the Bejing+10 UN meeting to be held this March.   Without equal access to IT, women risk becoming marginalised in the new technology-driven economy.   Today's economic realities make it imperative that we harness the full potential of women and men so that change is managed in the best way possible and growth in a knowledge-based economy is sustained.”

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