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Aspen at Expo - Investing in innovation: women and technologies

Presentation of Aspenia 69
Milan, 10/07/2015, Aspenia
Press clippings

It is women who underestimate their abilities, don’t ask for anything and often put up with a less important job than they are capable of. And yet according to many statistical studies, they are more competent, better prepared, have higher university grades and are better managers. It is true to say that women are more versatile and flexible and they play a key role in integrating the various elements of society. It is also time to quash the myth about women not being capable enough to study science or technology: there are already many women in leadership roles in research centers and universities, despite the fact that things didn’t look particularly good in days gone by. From 1901 onwards, the number of Noble Prizes awarded to women is nothing to get excited about: 2 for physics, 11 for medicine, 13 for literature, 16 for peace and 1 for economics. 43 in total. It shows that throughout the last century, on the one hand sciences were of little interest for women when choosing what to do, and on the other, how a degree of cultural and social conditioning prevented them from choosing a path deemed to be essentially a male preserve. 

Cultural paradigms must, therefore, be revised, as must educational pathways, so that it is easier and more immediate for women to choose science and technology. To do so - to quote Michelle Obama, who has been advocating this for a while and will continue to do so in the months to come – “starting with girls” is what is needed, in other words, to start with the way girls are taught when they are at school. Many can and do study technology and innovation, especially via e-learning. The creation of ad hoc platforms dedicated to educating girls, with courses and digital projects that encompass both healthy food and technology are just some examples of how the vision of women entrepreneurs with a social conscience is growing.

What is more, women in business have been coming up with new ideas for a long while; it is not a recent phenomenon. The financial world and major investment funds in particular are starting to believe in business plans and innovative ideas put forward by women. The Italian government has also increased the funding available to support projects initiated by women entrepreneurs. 

Societies have much to gain from gender equality. Women who have access to an income provide important solutions to nutritional problems and the survival of young children.  In Africa, there are still many cultural and social barriers in place: women in some rural areas, for example, are not allowed to use a tractor or any means of transport such as a bicycle or scooter. This means that they have no option but to cover many kilometers a day on foot and any women chooses to use one of the “forbidden” forms of transportation, are marginalized by the rural community in which they live and also prejudice their children’s chances in marriage. 

Probably all that is needed to resolve all this would be wells and pumps, but for now, these are not on the cards. Agriculture is the largest source of jobs in Africa’s rural areas, but it is usually dominated by men and is not women-friendly.

It is not only in Africa that the fight against stereotyping is hard. In the past, Western countries deemed that “women, youth and technology” were not only untrustworthy, they were probably also put the economy at risk. That paradigm is now changing: if a reasoned business plan is being presented, the fact that it has been drawn up by a young woman who is comfortable with technology is no longer considered to be a negative.   There is much still to do however, even if all the signs say that things are changing for the better. And that’s also partly due to a man, Steve Jobs, whose gut instinct told him that technology was no longer all about gray and complicated mechanisms for those who work in that sector and was instead about beauty, design and image. Today, technology has become synonymous with “cool”.

The female touch can now also be found in the innovative branch of agriculture known as food design, where young and brilliant women technical designers invent and build state of the art models. And far above and way beyond the issue of how they look, women continue to be the driving force behind major long-term and highly innovative business projects.

There are still few women CEOs, and the 3% rise seen in recent years is still low. Only 15% of venture capital businesses include women on the managerial team. That said, there is a tendency towards change and it is not by chance that sometime business funding may sometimes be withheld if there are less than two women in leadership roles. This is because women can be trusted to be tenacious in striving for success but are at the same time open to a more sustainable type of capitalism.

“Nothing is free”, is a phrase much loved by Emma Bonino and Marta Dassù, the leaders of “WE-Women for Expo”. Aspen Institute Italia, together with WE, organized The Aspen Forum at Expo, during which the issue number 69 of its journal, “Aspenia”, entitled “Fame zero” (zero hunger) was also presented. It contains an important section headed “The other half of the planet”, dedicated to the strategic role played by women.  “Nothing is free” because it all takes a lot of skill and a great deal of hard work. Above all, however, it is all about women’s tendency to never give up, their willingness to accept the responsibility that comes with making decisions and their desire to count for something.  The goal is that the hope expressed in the declaration made in Beijing in 1995 is declared a reality at this year’s meeting in New York. That hope was about the empowerment of women, or in other words, seeing the power of women in leadership roles contributing to the creation of a better society. If that is to happen, women must network with and be supportive of each other. Because, as Madeleine Albright famously “there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women”.