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29 Nov, 2013

Promoting Women Entrepreneurs: “What if it had been Lehman Sisters?”


Brussels, European Commission, 28 November 2013 – Full text of the speech by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, at the Women in Parliaments Global Forum

Today we face an economic crisis that threatens us all.

We need to invest in jobs for the future, growth for the future, hope for the future. Those are imperatives you just can’t ignore at the moment.

We’re about to hear a discussion: would the world look the same if it had been, not Lehman Brothers, but Lehman Sisters?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know the answer.

But one thing is clear to me. Europe is not in a good place right now. And accepted ways of thinking aren’t going to get us anywhere new.

Not in terms of women’s equality. And nor in terms of a stronger, more competitive economy.

When it comes to how society treats women, we’ve come a long way. When I was starting out as a Dutch member of parliament, I remember listening to a debate led by another deputy: older and of course male.

I didn’t agree with him and had a serious political point to make against his argument.

Yet, when I intervened to make that point, the only response he made was to complement me on my looks and clothes.

Not engaging with the issues that mattered to my and our country, but just engaging in everyday sexism.

Well. I didn’t stand for it then. And I wouldn’t stand for it now.

Today we’re not in the 1970s any more. Thank heavens. Young women today don’t have to stand for that kind of thing – not as often, anyway. They have a wider horizons, greater opportunities, fewer people telling them what they can and can’t do as women.

But look a bit closer and there are still many areas where, for one reason and another, women are missing out.

The sector I am now responsible for is a case in point.

Information and Communications Technology is an amazing, innovative platform. The tools you have at home, at work, or even in your pocket, are changing everything we do, what we do and how we do it, in every area you can think of.

And nowhere do you see the many applications of that technology, more than in the sector of web startups.

It is among Europe’s web entrepreneurs that I see the most innovations, transformations, inspirations.

Most of all, it’s where I see the hope for our future: to create ideas, generate jobs, and open up opportunities.

Europe needs to better support those startups: in terms of culture, resources, and recognition.

The Startup Manifesto, prepared by a team of top European entrepreneurial talent, contains some clear ideas for what we can do that. 22 actions — with 6000 signatures, and counting.

Creating growth and jobs through a better environment for all entrepreneurs – whatever their gender.

Yet women in particular are missing out. Especially among ICT sector entrepreneurs: fewer than one in five of whom are women. Only three percent of women with a degree have it in ICT, compared to nearly ten percent of men.

Then, it gets worse. Only one in seven women with an ICT degree then go on to work in the ICT sector; and many leave the sector mid-career. So you have not enough women among managers and decision-makers. And not enough women among the communities that matter to entrepreneurs – like angel investors and venture capital.

And let’s not forget the girls and the young women out there. This week is European code week. The young woman who launched is Slovenian.

She wants to get everyone in Europe coding, because is it a skill that we will all need. She has mobilised over 200 coding activities across our continent involving kids, teachers, coders, startups, parents and grandparents. Coding is fun, and she wants everyone to know it.

But she does not know how to get her local politicians interested. And she has told me she may not vote in the next European elections – because she believes that we, the politicians, are not listening to her.

Let me remind you why this matters.

Exactly 120 years ago women were first given the national vote, in New Zealand. That is the anniversary we celebrate today.

That change was made following a long campaign. The petition for female suffrage contained tens of thousands signatures, all handwritten onto a scroll 250 metres long. Kate Sheppard physically took it to the New Zealand Parliament and dramatically unrolled it, right there in the chamber.

That was a success: universal suffrage followed later that year.

But today we have more modern tools for political campaigning. Digital tools.

From brave young girls blogging for girls’ right to education: like Malala Yousafzai, awarded the Sakharov Prize just last week.

To social media tools that give citizens a new way to interact with their representatives.

To online campaigns that can give a platform to disparate, deserving political causes.

In short, digital is taking over politics and giving a new voice to the people, and to women.

But politics is just one example. This tool opens up so many new opportunities: from connecting with distant family, to new ways to promote your bright business idea. No longer a tool for teenage boys in lonely bedrooms, it matters for everyone.

From hoteliers to health workers, doctors to designers, whatever you’re doing, digital tools can probably help you build new, vibrant and active communities. That’s why ICT skills are the new literacy.

Meanwhile the EU Internet economy is growing fast. And generating jobs in its wake.

Indeed, soon the ICT sector could face a shortfall of nearly one million workers, because not enough people have the right skills.

And already the European app economy alone employs 800,000 people. Some of them working to become the next multi-millionaire Mark Zuckerberg or Martha Lane Fox. Others just pursuing a hobby or supporting their community.

That change is good for our economy, and good for our society. But it also means that, if you’re not on board with digital, you’re in danger of missing out on a huge opportunity.

That worries me. Our society needs change and innovation. And the digital sector can provide it like no other.

So, if we’re missing women, we’re missing out.

Every woman in Europe needs to seize this opportunity.

Because every woman working in this sector brings a triple boost; for themselves, for their employers, and for the economy.

Women in the ICT sector earn 9% more than in other sectors – and it’s a great career, fun and challenging, varied and creative.

Organisations that are more gender inclusive get a 34% higher return on investment. And, if women held digital jobs as frequently as men, the annual gain for the European economy would be around 9 billion euros.

9 billion euros! Just imagine how many computers we can buy for schools with that money!

In short: I am glad that women are trying to improve their communities by going into politics. But this is only the first step. Women are not taking up the opportunities available in ICT.

And that worries me. It worries me that they do not feel they have the freedom and confidence to work in this sector.

It worries me that they might feel excluded, or that the sector is not for them. It worries me that our economy is underperforming as a result.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to tap that huge talent pool.

Thank you.