In France, boys and men are more than twice as likely to graduate in STEM subjects than girls and women are, and nearly four times as likely to be employed as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists, according to the European Commission’s 2020 Women in Digital Scoreboard.

This gap is particularly visible in rural areas, where access to digital tools and learning opportunities is generally more limited, and gender stereotypes about STEM studies and careers can be deeply rooted.

Just 0.2 per cent of high school girls surveyed across France expect to work as ICT professionals when they are 30, compared to more than 6 per cent of their male peers.

Houda, 19, poses for a portrait outside her family’s home near Grenoble, France. [© UNICEF/UN0473761/Gelman / VII Photo ]

“Knowledge is power,” explains Houda, 19, a computer science student. “If girls learn to create a website or use social media, they can share their experience, and learn from others.”

Houda grew up in the countryside outside the city of Grenoble and commutes to the city each week to pursue a degree in computer science. “My university friends who attended school in urban centres all received basic coding lessons in high school. There wasn’t really anything like this in my village,” Houda explains. “During my last year of high school, I wanted to pick ‘digital science’ as a specialization, but it wasn’t available.”

Houda reads from a book at her university’s library, where she studies computer science. [© UNICEF/UN0473744/Gelman / VII Photo]

“When I told my friends I was going to study computer science [in university], they all warned me it was a male-dominated field,” she explains.

Today, Houda is the only girl out of 15 students in her university cohort. 

Houda enjoys sharing her experience with others in her village, where she says digital skills can play an important role in widening the horizons of adolescents, and girls in particular, by connecting them to the outside world. She has started mentoring her two little brothers and two girls in her community, and she hopes she can broaden her efforts after university, while pursuing a career in big data or artificial intelligence.

“We need to demystify computer science, show it is a tool useful to everyone in everyday life, and introduce computer science as a regular subject as early as middle school. We live in a digital era now. These skills are essential.”