Her mission is to connect the world

Doreen Bogdan-Martin has shattered glass ceilings before in the male-dominated world of telecommunications. Now she’s vying to become the first woman in the leadership circle of the International Telecommunication Union.

Her mission, if she’s elected by the 193 member nations, will be to steer the Geneva-based union’s development and help even more people reap the benefits of joining the internet revolution.

“Everyone wants to be connected. It’s the key driver for economic growth,” said Bogdan-Martin, the highest-ranked woman on the union’s staff, which she joined in 1995.

“But more than half the world’s population — nearly 4 billion people — is still offline,” she said. “That’s a huge market, a huge opportunity to make their lives better.”

Bogdan-Martin, the mother of four (including triplets), is passionate about drawing girls and women into tech careers. The World Economic Forum says only one-fourth of science, technology, engineering and math jobs in developed countries are held by women. She’s the architect of Equals, a partnership of international organizations, businesses, foundations and nonprofits working to bridge the technology gender gap.

The ITU was founded in Paris in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union to ease the transmission of telegraph messages. Later it took on the role of ensuring that international telephone calls got through seamlessly.

Today the United Nations agency helps make internet connections work globally, assigns orbits for communications satellites, and more.

Bogdan-Martin has been steeped in telecommunications policy for a quarter-century. After earning a master’s degree in international communications, she broke into the field as a globe-trotting specialist for the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

She’s also a licensed amateur radio operator. (She picked up the hobby after organizing a science project in her children’s school as a volunteer. The project culminated with the students conversing over radios with astronauts on the International Space Station.)

Woman standing by long row of flagpoles (Eric Bridiers/State Dept.)
Bogdan-Martin seeks an equal footing for all in the digital world. (Eric Bridiers/State Dept.)

A quarter-billion fewer women than men access the internet, and 1.7 billion women in developing countries still do not own mobile phones, now an indispensable tool for even the smallest businesses, she said.

Bogdan-Martin hopes to be elected head of the Development Bureau, one of the union’s three branches along with those dealing with standardization and radio communications. Its head is one of the union’s five elected leaders.

“Our focus back in the 1990s was on making sure everybody had a fixed-line telephone in their home. Now it’s about making sure we have affordable internet access for all,” she said.

She remembers in days past at U.N. meetings on eradicating poverty, colleagues would look at her and say, “You represent a luxury item.”

But the internet is absolutely not a luxury today. It represents economic opportunity and “that makes the work of the ITU more important now than it ever has been,” she says.

The election will take place at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in October.