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European Commission

Neelie Kroes

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Speech: My advice to young women

Debate about women and the economic crisis /Amsterdam

8 March 2013

Today is International Women's Day. And today I have some advice for every woman out there, young and old, about what the future might look like, and how to prepare for it.

Predicting the future is never easy.

One thing I do know is the change will keep happening.

And the lives and careers of those starting out today will be very different to mine.

In the past we had many uncertainties. Once it was fear of invasion, war in Europe; Cold War annihilation. Happily, these are no longer things most people worry about. But they are replaced by other risks: persistent unemployment, climate change; increasing shortages of energy.

And other opportunities: like new technology.

Today, people are living more healthily for longer. Between University and retirement, you could have a fifty year career.

At the same time that career won't be static. It's likely to involve different working patterns, different employers, different sectors, different skills, travel to different countries.

Make sure you're preparing yourself for that world: not by digging yourself into one furrow to crawl along until retirement. But with the relevant life skills to adapt and face the future. So that you can not just sustain that 50 year career - but keep it interesting and challenging, with doors constantly opening.

And when it comes to your life: don't stew in the expectations of other people. Decide for yourself.

If you want to marry, great! But do it for love: not because it's what people expect, and not for money. And make sure it stays that way.

Whatever you do, don't cut off your options. It's great to get married and have a family - if that's what you want. No joy is greater. But whether or not you're married, stay your own person: financially, socially, spiritually independent. Partners come and go, whether you want them to or not; but you're stuck with yourself, so make sure you're a fun and dynamic companion. Even if you do decide to have a family, remember that does not define you. And one day you'll hit an age when your kids leave home: because you've done your job well enough that they don't need the same care. And around the same age you'll find it a struggle to capture the attention of new employers and new opportunities. And maybe you'll find it harder to capture the attention of your husband or partner, too; they all stray at some stage.

So here's my advice. Don't enter that phase of your life without any options. Have the skills, have the mentality, have the financial independence. Have them, and keep them.

I was lucky. I had those options, I had that education. I had enough financial resources that I didn't have to stay together with a partner just for financial security. And each job I've done has been different, and better. Even today, I've been following my portfolio for over two years, and I still find out new things every day, things that make me energised and excited.

I was lucky. But today everyone can be lucky. And the main reason is ICT: modern technology. ICT gives you the skills, the tools, the platforms to do so much.

If you want to go abroad, you can still stay in touch with friends and family back home. If you find yourself single or cheated on, turn to online dating. And if you want a job and a career that's here to stay, get the ICT skills you need. Because demand for those kind of skills is rocketing.

Yet here's the problem. Women do use ICT, all the time. But not enough of them recognise the opportunities and value of having good ICT skills. They see ICT as not for them. They reckon programming is just for boys. They think this isn't an area where they can have fun or excel.

They're wrong. Soon 90% of all jobs will require some level of digital literacy. For higher-skilled ICT workers Europe could soon face a shortage of nearly one million skilled people. And in almost every sector, from medicine to sculpture, digital skills can help you support your career and your business and your passion.

Here's the weird thing. When women do take this path and study ICT, they realise it's challenging, creative and fun. They realise that this means you no longer have to just apply for other people's jobs - you can go out there and create your own as an entrepreneur. Women often succeed - as shown by people from Marissa Meyer to Martha Lane Fox. And they deliver for their companies too: technology companies have a 35% higher return on investment when led by women.

So why aren't women going out there and getting those skills? Why aren't they showing that entrepreneurial mindset so much? That's a question that worries me deeply. We must answer it for the sake of women – and our overall competitiveness.

This isn't just a European thing by the way. In Kenya, not far from the largest slums in the world, I've seen young women using computers to train as nurses. Migrant workers using their mobile phone to send home their wages to their families.

Yet over there, too, these are opportunities women are not making full use of. In low to middle-income countries, 21% fewer women than men own a mobile phone.

Across the world, there are many initiatives to changes these statistics and these mind-sets. From the Rails Girls Initiative in Europe, to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean in Foundation. But we need to be doing all we can to do that effectively.

So those of you who work in this field, would like to work in this field, are encouraging others to work in this field: what is it that makes girls and women ignore this opportunity? What would turn them on to it? What works to change those attitudes - and what doesn't?

One thing I do know: people's motivations work in very different ways. Sometimes it's from positive role models - someone you encounter, identify, and want to emulate. And sometimes it's negative - a lifestyle you know you could never endure.

For me, it was that second kind. When I was young, I looked to women of my mother's generation and knew my life couldn't be like that. I knew that I would do anything to ensure my future wasn't stuck at home, doing the laundry and caring for the kids. I knew that I had to be able to break out and assert my independence: and that called with an education, a career, money. However strange that may have then seemed to my mother and her friends. So I went out there and got those skills.

Any young girls listening to me today, I hope I inspire them a little and get them to think about their options. But deep down I suspect, in fact I hope, they are just a little bit sceptical. What does she know? Doesn't she realise the world has changed?

Quite right too.

I made mistakes. I wish I had not felt pressured into such an early marriage. I wish I'd gone abroad to work. I wish I hadn't set so much value by other people's hopes and expectations.

I shouldn't be lecturing anyone.

So don't listen to me tell you how your life will run, how your life SHOULD run. Don't listen to ANYONE. That's not anyone's job. Make your own path, and find your own motivation.

But this is the one thing I would say. Seize every opportunity, close off no options. Follow your own hopes, not other people's expectations. Do what needs to be done to keep your identity as a woman.

Do that, and you'll be able to seize any opportunity that comes along. You need never feel too old, too incapable, or "too female". And then you'll find that the best years of your life are ALWAYS ahead of you.


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