Interview with Doreen Bogdan-Martin

21 November 2016
Interview with Doreen Bogdan-Martin

Interview with Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief Strategic Planning and Membership Department International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

She is the chief of the strategic planning and membership department at ITU. She is the one who oversees all the governance and communications functions within the organization. So whether it concerns external relations with Member States, the United Nations, the private sector or other members of the ITU constituency, Ms Bogdan is, one way or another, a pivotal person at the ITU. She is also the Executive Secretary for the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, a high powered commission dedicated to bringing the benefits of broadband to all.

Discrete, hardworking and extremely dedicated to the potential of “tech” to empower, she sees the opportunities rather than the drawbacks. In other words, she looks beyond the actual applications of technology towards the positive change that information and communication technologies – or ICTs – can leverage in achieving better living conditions for us all.
Despite her busy schedule in the office and at home managing her four active teenagers, she took time to meet with us, and to answer all our questions. So let us leave the floor to Ms Bogdan.

Q: Congratulations. How does it feel to be the highest ranking woman in ITU?

It’s very exciting and extremely challenging.
In ITU we have a different organizational structure than in the other UN agencies. We have three sectors (Radio Communications, Standardization, and Development) that form the Union. Unlike other UN
ll five of our highest ranking officials – the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General and the three directors heading the sectors are elected by the 193 Member States. Under these elected officials, we have the civil servants, and within this category the highest civil servant is D2. So I am the first woman to achieve a D2 positon in ITU. Altogether we are four D2, three male colleagues and me.

Q: How did you end up in the ICT sector?

When I was in graduate school studying International Communications Policy, one of my professors who was working at the US Department of Commerce, introduced me to the Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). She offered me an internship, and that is where it all began. After 6 months, I was offered a paid position as a policy analyst. I had the incredible opportunity to have a portfolio covering a diverse range of issues from international satellite regulation, to telecommunications reform in Latin America, and more. While at NTIA, I covered the work of the ITU Development sector which then led me to the ITU on a secondment from the US government back in 1993. In 1994, I officially joined the ITU Development Bureau responsible for regulatory reform. At that time, our goal was universal fixed line connectivity. Only 11% of the global population was connected, mobile cellular had reached 1% and Internet subscribers 0.3%. The focus of my work at the time was on market liberalization (separation of posts and telecom, privatization, and the introduction of competition). We have come a long way since then, but connectivity is still not universal.

Q: Do think it’s more difficult being a woman in the IT and high-tech sector than in other sectors?

Definitely. The tech sector is very male dominated. This is a problem that needs to be tackled on several fronts, starting with getting more girls interested in STEM, and enabling them to enter the tech workforce.

Q: How do you explain that?

Partially because fewer and fewer women are studying technology-related disciplines. If we think back to when computer science first came out in the 1980s and became a university discipline, there was an equal share of both men and women taking these courses. Today the female share studying this discipline is under 20 per cent in most countries. And that percentage is mirrored when we look at the ICT workforce where the average is around the same, and in many cases much less. If we look specifically at App development, the percentage is less than 10% of all apps being created by women. With low percentages of women’s representation in the sector, in some ways it is not a surprise that there are fewer women in senior leadership positions in the tech space.

When we look at technology users in some countries, women are bigger users of new technologies than men. But globally there are fewer women with mobile phones and fewer women with Internet access than men.

Q: The trend speaks for itself. What do you consider as being the reasons for these low figures?

I think the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, it’s a perception problem. Many women and girls consider tech is for men, or tech is for geeks. There are not enough role models out there. This is where the media industry could be more helpful, by casting more female characters in ICT positions or ICT related jobs.

Geena Davis, is our special envoy, and her organization the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and the Media, have done some amazing work, studying women’s representation in the media. ( Geena’s motto is “if you can see it, you can be it”. I think that is definitely true. The goal of the Institute’s work is to improve gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in the media industry. Previous research looked in the women’s roles in films and the latest work dives deeper, using an algorithm, into women’s speaking time in films, television shows and other media. Her work has shown that when women are portrayed in careers/positions in a positive way, young women may choose to emulate them by taking studies in those areas. Look at medicine, law, and criminal science for example.

The second problem, linked to the first problem, is one of social impact, or the human dimension. We, the tech industry, don’t do a great job in selling how technology can really impact positively our lives. It’s not about technology for technologies sake. It’s about technology to advance knowledge, access health care services, education, and more.

Q: Who would you consider as your mentor?

My father was my champion and my inspiration. He was a Paediatrician born to Polish immigrants who dedicated his over 50 year career to children. He was passionate about medicine, science, and life in the oceans. Being the only daughter with 3 brothers, my father made sure I knew I could be anything I wanted to be. Nothing in his eyes was “just for boys”, or “just for girls”. Working by his side, as a summer job throughout high school and college, he taught me how the greatest reward in life was to help others. Even though I didn’t end up as a medical doctor (something I had once dreamed of), I did end up in a field where the work that I do, and the benefits that technology can offer, will help people to have a better life.

Q: So what are you doing concretely to increase the number of girls in the ICT field?

ITU has been active in this space for a number of years. One of our main initiatives, spearheaded by the ITU Development Sector, is Girls in ICT day which has been running since 2011. An annual celebration held on the 4th Thursday of every April, Girls in ICT aims to attract and encourage girls to take up studies and careers in the ICT sector. The celebration has been held in over 160 countries.

We also have an annual award together with UN Women called the Gender Equality Mainstreaming in Technology (GEM-TECH). The Award, running since 2014, recognizes outstanding organizational and individual innovations and achievements in advancing women engagement with ICT.

In September 2016, on the margins of the UN General Assembly we announced a new initiative together with UN Women, called EQUALS. Equals is a Global Partnership to ensure gender equality in the digital age, and ensure the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal #5.

With the various review processes that took place last year from the review of the Beijing Platform Action, and the 10-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), one factor stood out. The goals linked to women having equal access to technology, having equal opportunities and representation in the work force, and in decision making, etc. had not been met. And the ITU stats for 2015 revealed that the gender digital divide was actually growing.

Equals is the result of these reflections, and will tackle 3 main areas: access, skills, and leadership. There is a lot happening in the ICT space, but we need to be able to scale. If everyone were to come together, share experiences, and best practices we could make a difference. Concretely, we aim to be evidence based, starting 1st with a baseline of data to enable us to monitor and report every year on how we are doing on to close the divide. We have done an extensive mapping exercise of related initiatives in an effort to identify best practices as well as gaps. Those gaps would then be filled through collective efforts of the Equals partners.

The September announcement was part of the communication and advocacy actions.

We have asked people to take a photo making the Equals gesture, tweet it or put it on their Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #beEquals - Why? Because technology can be the greatest equalizer we have ever known.

The next step for “Equals” is a working meeting during ITU Telecom World in November in Bangkok. After that we will head to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and more.

Q: ITU seems to be lagging behind other UN organizations in women at top management positions. Do you think this will change?

Yes, I think we are making progress, slowly but surely. Our Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, is a Geneva Gender Champion. It’s a great initiative which was started last year by Pamela Hamamoto, the US ambassador and Michael Möller, UNOG Director-General to advance gender equality through concrete and measurable commitments.

The philosophy is quite simple. In order to become Gender Champion you have to sign on to a parity panel pledge. It means putting an end to #manels (panels filled only with men).

In addition, the organisation had to make two commitments. Our SG is paying attention to women applicants for jobs at ITU. He is also paying attention to the composition of Member State delegations.

We are also working to raise awareness with our Member States about this issue. We now announce the delegation with the largest women delegates, and also the percentage of women delegates. We are also encouraging our members to put forward women candidates for leadership positions in our conferences and study groups, as well as moderators, and speakers.

We need to make sure we are building the pipeline for our leaders of tomorrow. That is a job that can’t be done by ITU management alone. We need the support of our members.

Q: What specific challenges are there for women in leadership positions in organizations with diverse cultural, commercial and government stakeholders?

In general, diverse teams can be the strongest teams. I am very fortunate to be leading an amazing team in my position at the ITU. I believe when you empower your staff, motivate and challenge them, they deliver their best.

When it comes to women leaders, there are not enough of us. So we don’t have a network of female peers around us. We also struggle with work-family balance, and having the time to deliver what is expected on the work front without sacrificing the time with your family. We learn to juggle, and to be extremely well organized.

The current Secretary-General of the UN, Mr Ban Ki-moon has done a very good job in hiring very qualified women to lead UN organizations. I understand that the newly elected SG will do the same. From my own perspective, if you are the only woman on board, it is not enough. Studies show that gender balance in the boardroom can make a difference for business as well as in decision making.

Q: Innovation is advancing at a phenomenal rate. What do you see as the future?

The future is definitely mobile. With broadband growing like crazy, the future is your mobile device. We will continue to see advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), the application of big data, and probably very soon self-driving vehicles.

But where we really need to be looking is to innovation for development. We still have over 50 per cent of the world’s population that are deprived of connectivity. In the Least Developed Countries, only 15 per cent of the population has access to the internet.

We need to connect the next 1.5 billion, the last 1.5 billion and all of those in between. We can only do this through global collaboration, and multi-stakeholder partnerships combined with enabling and investment friendly policy environments. We need to ensure that access is affordable and that content is relevant and available in local languages.

Q What other challenges do you see in the ICT space?

There is a growing concern around cybersecurity and trust in the network. This continues to be an important issue for ITU, but also for the global community.

Cyber-safety, particularly for children, is a top priority for me, not just as a professional, but as a parent of 4 teenagers, 4 digital natives, with multiple devices. Parenting in the physical world is already a great challenge. Parenting in the virtual world makes this exponentially more difficult. Not a single parenting book back at that time prepared us for what was to come!

My husband and I talk to our children regularly at the dinner table about what is appropriate or not in terms of on-line behaviour. We also try to enforce limits on the time spent on their devices. This often calls for creative parenting.

I am proud to have been one of the architects of ITU’s Child on-line protection initiative, as well as part of a recent study we launched in 2015 on Cyber violence against women and girls. Raising awareness amongst children, educators, parents, policy makers, and working closely with industry players can help ensure that ICTs do achieve their potential in “accelerating human progress” as called for in the UN 2030 Agenda.

Leaving Ms Bogdan to go back to her work, we realize the enormity of her job. The internet is becoming more and more important in our lives, and so is the mobile device…We need global cooperation and collaboration-enabling frameworks and who is better placed to look into the benefits and disadvantages than ITU. We wish Ms Bogdan the best of luck in this endeavour because a single woman among the men, in such a male-dominated field might make all the difference.