(Evropská komise)
European Union  |  September 05, 2023 18:21:25, updated

Speech by President von der Leyen at the Pulse Women Economic Network, via video message

Distinguished guests,
dear friends of the PULSE Network,

thank you for the invitation, but also for creating this network for women in business, politics and academia.

Platforms like these are extremely important in helping brilliant women like yourselves get the opportunities and the recognition you deserve. And this is what I would like to talk about today. But allow me to begin on a personal note. I would like to tell you about a woman who has influenced me in many ways: My mother.

She was a tough and smart woman. Unlike most women in her days, she had a chance to study. She was the first woman in our family to get a PhD. She loved her job as a journalist. But when she got married and had children, pursuing her career wasn't really an option. She was a wife and the lovely mother of seven children. And she was a wonderful mother. No one expected her to be anything else. But later, when I was in my thirties, she confided in me about her ambivalence.Things changed for my generation.

When I studied medicine, and became a medical doctor, 50 percent of my colleagues were already women. But how to reconcile our career with the choice of being a mother remained an open question. It was still “normal” to leave your job for good when you had kids. And for the young female doctors who chose a career without children, the glass ceiling was rock solid. It prevented many talented women from reaching the posts that they deserved.

Now fast forward to the present day, to your generation of women. Much progress has been achieved. And you are living proof of that. Women in leadership positions are no longer the exception. But they aren't the norm either. Many of the questions on how to reconcile private life and a career that leads you to the top persist. And many of the most promising sectors for the economy of tomorrow are very much dominated by men.

Take clean tech. Only 17% of venture capital for clean tech goes to start-ups founded by at least one woman. Investment in all-women teams is close to nil. And this is happening in spite of the growing number of women working in clean tech and clean energy. For instance, 40% of solar workers are women. But almost 90% of managers are men.

Yet there are ways to change this. We shouldn't just wait another generation. We shouldn't wait for history to slowly take its course. We can shape the course of history – including, when necessary, with laws and with public investment.

This means, at its most basic, giving mothers – and, actually, fathers – a chance to follow their dreams. So, for instance, Europe is investing in affordable childcare for all families, including with substantial resources in our recovery plan, NextGenerationEU. So that no one has to choose between having children or having a career.

But also by shedding a light on, and fighting back against, biases – both open and hidden. Parenthood – especially motherhood – should not be viewed as an impediment to work, or leadership positions. I rather consider it as a qualification!

We cannot afford to keep women out of the labour market – the price is simply too high. And sometimes we are not even aware of it. Consider this. Only a small minority of people who work in artificial intelligence are women. Today, AI models are being developed – mostly –by men. At its best, AI should be trained on data that mirrors our entire modern societies, NOT their flaws and imperfections. Without the participation of women in this key technology, we run the risk that AI will reflect the unconscious biases of its male coders, and perpetuate existing discriminations.

This is one of the reasons why the EU is promoting the “human in control” principle for sensitive applications of AI. Because the new digital world should not reproduce old inequalities, but open up new opportunities.

And finally, hidden biases can also be broken by allowing brilliant women to go all the way to the top and actually sit in the boss's chair. That's why we have also fought very hard for quotas for women on boards. We pushed – and managed – to unblock EU legislation that was stuck for ten years, to set a target of 40 percent for women on boards of publicly traded European firms. We are just not waiting for the future. We are making it happen, for today's generation of women.

My professional expertise is: all of us can make a difference, in all businesses and all walks of life. Being in leadership positions, we can support other women in our workplace, so that they get what they deserve. Managers and CEOs can help, hire and promote qualified people from diverse backgrounds. And whenever we hear anyone say that it is not possible to find women with the right profile for a leadership role – it is everyone's responsibility to tell them to just look harder.

This is also why a gathering like yours is so important. There are so many talented, experienced and motivated women. It is important to build new networks and alliances among us. It is natural to support each other – the same way men do. So let me wish all of you in the PULSE network all the best for this meeting and for our common endeavour.

Thank you.

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