Today I want to share with you what I’m thinking about on International Day of the Girl.
The United Nations reminds us today of a disturbing statistic when it comes to 600 million adolescent girls entering a global workforce undergoing radical change driven by digital technology: Ninety percent of these girls are on track to work in low- or no-pay professions in which abuse and exploitation are common.
This year’s theme, With Her: A Skilled Girlforce, is focusing attention on how the world can change course.
Part of what got me thinking about this was an interview I did recently with Chief Executive Magazine. In it, I acknowledged that I occupy a “rarefied” position as a female CEO of a major company. (The percentage of female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies last year dropped from little more than 6 percent to less than 5 percent.)
Looking back at my journey, I was certainly helped by having an abundance of patience and persistence. As I told TIME, I’m simply not a quitter.
Then again, patience and persistence – and especially talent – all need to be nurtured. Innate ability didn’t propel me from software engineer to CEO.
The key factor, and what makes my story unique from a global perspective, was the opportunity I had to grow up in an environment that fully supported my ambitions and capabilities.
I grew up literally surrounded by education. Our home in Lexington, Virginia had Washington and Lee University on one side and Virginia Military Institute on the other. And my mom and dad were both college professors.
From them, I developed a passion for math and science, and initially saw myself becoming a college professor too.
But as I completed my mathematics degree at Wake Forest University, an opportunity arose that guided me into business and changed my path: IBM recruited me and trained me to be a software programmer.
This leads me to how I’m connecting my experience to International Day of the Girl and its 2018 theme.
When we make the case for gender equity in business, we often point to how it relates to the larger issue of equity across society. We cite studies showing that companies with more female executives are more profitable, or that diverse teams are more capable of solving problems.
International Day of the Girl now has me seeing it from another important perspective. I’m seeing how blessed I’ve been, while also asking myself:
What is the real cost of utilizing only a small portion of the talent that exists in our world today?
What seemingly intractable challenges, from business to government and global development, could we solve by focusing as much on human power as we do on technological power?
At stake here are the future livelihoods of hundreds of millions of girls. Yet I would argue that their participation is necessary from an innovation standpoint too. I think bringing more people into the fold will help us make the really big things we dream of doing with digital technology a reality – whether that’s decarbonizing cities or bringing power to cities that have never had reliable electricity at all.
In the digital economy, humans are teaching machines how to learn. But artificial intelligence still needs even more than human intelligence to work; it also needs a variety of human perspectives and experiences that fully reflect our global society.
Let’s imagine a world today in which access to education and training is as abundant as human capability.
The digital revolution might seem like it’s all about computing power and software and data.
It’s really a test to see how committed we are to exploring human potential.