A digital native perspective

February 27, 2024

Carlotta Barone-MacDonald, Undergraduate student at Ecole Polytechnique, Paris

My heart raced as I exited the plane. In 2022, Candace Johnson invited me to the Mobile World Congress as her mentee, while she was hosting the Global Telecom Women’s Network 30th annual gala. In the daunting and tumultuous halls of the Congress, I ran from booth to booth, trying to absorb the air of innovation, of the tech revolution.

Immersed in this plethora of ideas, I suddenly realized that I was the odd one out; a young woman, a student, drowning in an ocean of suited men, leading the world through digital transformation. I could not help but wonder: where then do I fit into this world?

I was born in 2004, to the boom of telecom and digital change, in a year marked by the foundation of Facebook and the rise of Skype. Having grown up in France, raised by an American mother, I learned early on to use digital tools to reach my family, who lived an ocean away. I was lucky enough to be able to communicate with them effortlessly and have only seen these technologies develop as I grew up. I am a proud member of the digital generation: a group of people whose lives have been shaped by digital technologies since their birth.

A non-linear path

It therefore does not come as a surprise that, like many of my peers, I was drawn to work in the tech industry. However, my path has not been linear. Studying Mathematics and Physics at École Polytechnique in Paris, my first introduction to technology, and AI in particular, was through ethics.

In my freshman year, I worked with a UK-based non-profit, Teens in AI1, to build a course on AI Ethics for youth 12 to 18, based on current case studies. Speaking to students a few years younger than me, I realized how quickly the perception of technology changes, and how vital it is to include youth in decisions related to the technology that shapes their lives.

Building on this experience, and my technical background in STEM, I represented France at Huawei’s Summer School for Female Leadership in the digital age2 (ELA) in 2023. The program was designed to empower young female leaders to thrive and lead Europe into an inclusive, sustainable digital future. The school welcomed 29 women from 29 European countries, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from engineering and biotechnology to humanities and social sciences. Over a week in Valencia, Spain, we had the chance to participate in panels led by business executives, tech experts, researchers, Members of the European Parliament, and more. The topics addressed brushed over the immense power of technology to transform society, for instance during discussions on Generative AI & Ethics led by Aleksandra Pzegalinska, or Tech and Healthcare Innovation, as well as the current barriers faced by digital tech, such as lack of gender diversity, or climate change.

Diversity profile of digital tech

These experiences shone a light on the critical need for diversity and sustainable thinking in tech, a shortage I am determined to address. Surrounded by women of all ages, from many backgrounds, and with diverse goals, I began to see a place for myself among the sea of suits.

An analysis by VISIER of 330,000 Anonymous Employee Records showed that the average tech worker is 38 years old, compared to 43 years old for non-tech workers3. Unsurprisingly, the tech workforce is younger than average, but who are these workers?

It is no secret that women and other minorities are underrepresented in tech sectors. In 2022, women made up 28% of the tech workforce4. This leads to bias in innovation. The only way to fight this is by encouraging the scientific curiosity of girls through education and mentorship. The first step towards this is inviting young women to join networks such as the GTWN early in their professional journeys. Solidarity and inclusion are greatly lacking, but they are necessary for sustainable progress in the tech sector.

Moreover, collaboration between disciplines will lead to extraordinary breakthroughs. Given its broad application scope, tech has much to learn from external sectors. The industry needs to reform to foster transversality as a sign of force. One possible way to do this is to encourage a diverse panel of backgrounds to enter the tech workforce – not only of gender but of socio- economic and academic backgrounds as well.

At the ELA I worked with a team of 5, with academic backgrounds ranging from politics to engineering, to build a policy brief on the importance of fostering soft skills in the European tech sector. Our diversity was our strength – with everyone bringing a new perspective to the table. Of course, for this diversity to make its way to the tech sector at large, we need to first bridge the digital divide, and make sure that all sections of society have access to the current communication and information tools. Great advancements are being made in this direction, with increased accessibility to broadband in rural areas for instance, or digital literacy programs, but efforts mustn’t cease.

Fresh perspectives and opportunities

The digital generation is particularly well-placed to build a bridge to overcome the digital divide, with 96% of young people aged 16–29 years in the EU reported using the internet every day, compared to 84% of the adult population in 20225. My generation is already armed with digital skills, which they use daily. We need to find ways to foster these skills in-depth, so that they may understand the technology behind familiar digital tools and bring people from all walks of life to consider careers in the tech industry.

One of the main barriers faced, however, is the need for more synchronicity between current technology trends and relevant policy. The current pace of policy making is no match for the fast-paced evolution of digital technology, and generative AI in particular. Moreover, technical expertise is greatly lacking in policy spheres. We should encourage the digital generation to take active decision-making positions – encouraging both the development of technical expertise and a big-picture approach, fed by knowledge of ethical, climactic, and geopolitical implications of the technology they develop.

Overall, sustainability, in the broad sense, should be fundamental to tech innovation rather than an afterthought. I see mentorship as a primary lever for action and as a two- way street. Young people entering the workforce have a lot to learn from established industry leaders, and mentors may also benefit from fresh perspectives – to create relevant digital tech and consolidate decisions with current technical innovation. We need established structures, such as the GTWN, that actively seek out young mentees to join networks.

  1. https://www.teensinai.com/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.europeanleadershipacademy.eu/
  3. https://www.visier.com/blog /four-common-tech-ageism-myths- debunked/
  4. https://www.zippia.com/advice/women-in-technology-statistics/ ↩︎

Carlotta Barone-MacDonald is an undergraduate student in Mathematics and Physics at Ecole Polytechnique, in Paris, France. She has been one of Candace Johnson’s mentees since 2021.

Carlotta has previously worked on quantum computing problems at Imperial College London. She is passionate about finding new ways to apply quantum mechanics to real-world issues, particularly regarding energy technologies and information science, examining their interplay. She is currently researching the parallels between quantum mechanical processes in photosynthesis and quantum annealing at MIT, within the frame of her bachelor thesis.