Addressing the digital gender gap in Emilia-Romagna

Michela De Biasio and Barbara Santi are working on a very important subject for the Digital Agenda Department of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Italy. With several initiatives, they’re trying to address the digital gender gap, one of the challenges identified in Emilia-Romagna’s Digital Valley Common Good strategy. Looking beyond their own region, they aim to set an example and inspire other Italian regions, and even countries.

With a background in political sciences and a PhD in spatial planning and public policies, Michela is now combining her extensive experience in these subjects with her passion for gender equality in the project Digital Girls Emilia Romagna.

Barabra obtained degrees in statistical and economic sciences. She has been working on the Digital Agenda of the Emilia-Romagna Region since 2010. She has an interest and passion for digital skills, local policies for participation, and inclusive technological innovation. She’s also focused on the gender gap in the technological field and, thanks to her statistics education, the measurement of the digitalization of territories in all its forms.

About the Digital Valley Common Good strategy

As mentioned, the Digital Girls Emilia Romagna project is part of the Digital Valley Common Good strategy; the plan of the Digital Agenda Department of the Emilia-Romagna Region for the period 2020-2025. Centred around establishing a digital culture, technological innovation, sustainable development, and social integration, the strategy is based on several key points, like:

  • Data as a common good, disseminated, and available to the territory.
  • The dissemination of the digital skills necessary for the transformation of the production sectors and the Public Administration, up to real digital public services centred around the user, who will be able to access these anywhere thanks to a hyper-connected Emilia-Romagna.
  • Online communities as an indispensable resource for combatting the marginalization of certain territories and gender inequality.

Read more about the Digital Valley Common Good Strategy.

Women and Digitalization: an indispensable asset

Especially with regards to the last key point, the ‘Women and Digitalization: an indispensable asset’ challenge plays an important role as one of the eight challenges within the overarching strategy. Michela: “There’s a lot of inequality in different sectors, but primarily the technological sector. There’s a strong lack of female presence in technological fields. Also, looking at European data, the biggest disparity between men and women is in digital skills. We aim to even the playing field for men and women with a number of initiatives in the area of digital skills.”

Why gender inequality exists in Emilia-Romagna

Before diving into the initiatives Michela, Barbara and their teammates have set up to address this issue, it’s interesting to discover why it exists in the first place. Michela shares her insights. “Stereotypes are a big problem, probably also in other regions and countries. Stereotypes that stem from more ‘traditional’ world views.”

She refers to stereotypical roles of men and women in families for instance, but also stereotypes in the types of jobs men and women should have. “The technological field is traditionally seen as a male world and one full of ‘nerds’. And this conviction, whether consciously or subconsciously, still lives in people’s minds; like teachers who teach in technological programmes, but also in women themselves, who often overlook the technological field because they feel they don’t fit in that nerdy, male-dominant world, whether it be true or not.”

Barbara stresses that there’s a sort of paradox. “The technological field needs women to join the workforce, not just for equality, but due to a shortage of personnel. But despite the need for female employees, the current lack of female role models also makes women hesitant to enter these fields. Which is a shame, not because the gap remains, but also because women are depriving themselves of interesting and well-paying jobs.”

Summer camps Digital Girls Emilia-Romagna

This connects to one of the key initiatives the team of Michela and Barbara are supporting. The Emilia-Romagna region finances summer camps for girls around the age of 16/17 to introduce them to the technological field and enhance their digital skills. Barbara: “And one of the things that we are most proud of, is that we have a majority of female teachers and tutors: female role models. Also during field trips and meetings with the entrepreneurs during the camp, the girls primarily meet female professionals.”

The summer camps help girls see beyond stereotypes and get acquainted with very interesting career opportunities and college programmes. Michela: “All the camps are organized by training and education institutions, some of them in collaboration with the universities in the Emilia-Romagna region. The project started with the University of Modena and Reggio-Emilia, in collaboration with the European Women’s Management Development (EWMD), back in 2014. Since then, it has steadily been growing, involving increasingly more universities.”

In 2022, the Emilia-Romagna region and the Digital Agenda Department identified ‘Digital Girls’ as a project to be expanded and included in a structural way in a larger effort to help girls orient towards STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics) subjects. And thus, the first edition of the regional Ragazze Digitali Emilia-Romangna project was born, coordinated and financed by the Emilia-Romagna Region, with the support of ART-ER S.cons.p.a, with European Social Funds (ESF). It involved all the universities of Emilia-Romagna.

In 2023, thanks to an ESF+ funding, the project was further expanded. This edition included 7 private education institutions, selected through a call from the Emilia-Romagna region, and all of the Emilia-Romagna universities. Barbara: “This really helps girls get interested in pursuing education in digital skills and technology, and interesting and fulfilling careers.”

Last year, 16 camps were organized in which 300 girls were welcomed. Private education institutions and universities collaborated with the (financial) support from Emilia-Romagna to set up these camps. They all adhered to specific criteria for the camps, such as recruiting mainly female teachers and female role models from enterprises to inspire the girls.

One of many

The summer camps are just one example of an initiative to address gender inequality in digital skills. Michela explains how the team is also working on embedding initiatives elsewhere once the runtime of the strategic programmes is over. “For example, we did a policy workshop for female local administrators, and, from this first initiative, we started to build a community of these administrators (who are in charge of digital issues and equal opportunities) from the 300 municipalities in the region. We also want to give them a sort of toolbox that they can use to incorporate initiatives for gender equality into their daily operations.”

Other activities, for instance, involve organizing seminars, but also mapping activities, like tracking how initiatives grow to recruit girls for college programmes. A part of these mapping activities also involves discovering where efforts should be increased or what challenges need to be addressed. Finally, these mapping activities help build a strong case outside of the region, by being able to showcase results of these initiatives to other regions, and perhaps even countries.

Barbara and Michela are also very happy with a podcast they’re developing. “With a podcast, we further want to make information on the topic more accessible. Both citizens and municipalities can use the podcast to get more acquainted and involved with the topic”, says Barbara.

Not there yet

When asked what they’re most proud of, Michela answers that there’s still a lot to do, an answer demonstrating that the team is far from satisfied right now. “We want to do more. Or course we’re proud of what we’re doing and what we’ve accomplished, but we want to continue challenging ourselves and learning from others and each other. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.”