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Another 100 years to bridge the global gender gap

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Feb 2020

As the world commemorates International Day of Women and Girls in Science today, the truth remains that women and girls are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The imbalance is a worldwide phenomenon, with data from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Gender Gap Report showing it will take at least another 100 years to bridge the gender gap across the globe.

Even though WEF data shows SA has made strides towards gender parity, the same can’t be said about the local ICT sector. Statistics show South African women only make up about 23% of the ICT sector's workforce.

The most practical way to improve women representation in the ICT space is to expose more girls to STEM-related subjects, notes Project Isizwe CEO Dudu Mkhwanazi.

Mkhwanazi heads up non-profit organisation Isizwe, which describes itself as an advocate for free WiFi, having helped the City of Tshwane pioneer its free Internet connectivity project.

“More women should be encouraged and supported within the ICT SMME sector; more platforms that are geared towards women empowerment such as ‘The Inspiring Fifty’ need to be established without fear that it may be deemed as excluding the other gender.”

Her sentiments are shared by Sonwabise Sebata, acting chairperson for the board of the South African Women in ICT Forum, who says it starts with the country’s foundation – the education system.

Established in 2014, the South African Women in ICT Forum serves as a platform for advocating for more women in SA’s ICT sector through policy frameworks, programmes that contribute to career acceleration, training and capacity-building.

Referencing a PwC report, Sebata says the proportion of females to males who graduate with STEM-related degrees is imbalanced in SA; however, this is also a global gender problem.

“World Economic Forum statistics show that in maths and statistics studies, there are only 4.5% female students. In engineering, manufacturing and construction there are only 3.1% female students, which in turn shrinks the number of women in STEM, posing further restrictions to our growth as women in the sector.”

However, Sebata is quick to point out that the answer can’t just be the education system. “The answer is more complex. Behavioural design, counter-stereotyping societal norms, upskilling and reskilling, role modelling, de-biasing societal structures, and changing the narrative and images associated with toys to sports to design models to classrooms should all play a role.

“It is encouraging to see more ICT companies with women leaders in South Africa; namely, Microsoft [Lillian Barnard], Software AG [Kholiwe Makhohliso], SAP [Cathy Smith], Naspers [Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa], Project Isizwe [Mkhwanazi], and Siemens [Sabine Dall'Omo]. But the call to action is far broader than that.”

Sonwabise Sebata, acting chairperson of the South African Women in ICT Forum board.
Sonwabise Sebata, acting chairperson of the South African Women in ICT Forum board.

Marginal progress

Commenting on improvements in regards to women representation in the sector over the past few years, Mkhwanazi says this has been “very minimal”.

Sure, you see women now appointed to head up some JSE-listed companies; however, more needs to be done, states the Isizwe CEO. “The sector needs to embrace and empower women, particularly young women, not for quota representation purposes but according to the skills women have.”

During this time, it is women that have had to help each other, creating employment opportunities for their counterparts, she points out.

“I believe now there are more opportunities and platforms available for women in ICT that are created by women who are in the sector, and who experienced hardships climbing up and are passing on their experiences to the younger generation. Unfortunately, this has not translated into women’s representation in executive and board position in large margins as of yet.”

Project Isizwe CEO Dudu Mkhwanazi.
Project Isizwe CEO Dudu Mkhwanazi.

For Lynette Hundermark, co-founder and chief product officer of Useful & Beautiful, the local ICT sector hasn’t created “enough” employment opportunities for women.

The ICT sector in SA is still unfortunately majority male and the numbers have increased marginally over the last 25 years Hundermark has been in the sector, she notes. “There are many initiatives to attract women in tech but SA still has a major retention problem where women are dropping off after a few years.”

According to Hundermark, the number is still, if lucky, one woman to 10 men, especially at middle to senior management. “Females need to feel more included; there seems to be a bit of segregation between men and women, which is never pleasant.

“Men and women at senior levels, especially, are treated different; an assertive female is still perceived as difficult or a trouble-maker, while an assertive male is seen as a leader. Double standards are unfortunately a reality.”

Closing the gaps

In terms of whose responsibility it is to close the gender gap in the sector, both Mkhwanazi and Hundermark highlight this is not a women-only problem.

“Women have always been pioneers in leading conversation and discussion on women representation across various sectors,” notes Mkhwanazi. “However, I believe both the public and private sectors need to come to the party and mentor and appoint more women in executive decision-making positions within the sector.

“Women in the ICT sector is much bigger than quota representation. We are changing the status quo. No sector should be deemed as predominantly male or female. We ought to strive for equal representation of skills amongst the genders,” she adds.

Hundermark stresses that women also need to feel more included. “Nobody is asking for special treatment, but the boy’s club attitude needs to stop. Representation does not stop at the hiring process, retention is equally important and senior management/mentors within the workforce need to be there to support women in the workplace and not make them feel alienated, just as men have been supported.”

Lynette Hundermark, co-founder and chief product officer of Useful & Beautiful.
Lynette Hundermark, co-founder and chief product officer of Useful & Beautiful.

STEM champion

Lerato Mazibuko, electrical engineer at Anglo American Coal, says the transformation of technology over the years inspired her decision to follow a STEM career.

Katlehong-born Mazibuko’s role has seen her working on multidiscipline projects within the mining and construction industry, and she is now a project engineer looking after the technical details and interface for all engineering deliverables for mining projects at Anglo American Coal.

Commenting on some of the challenges along the way, Mazibuko notes there were no women in leadership roles that she could look up to as a young female, which led to her doubting her capabilities when she started working.

“Over the years, I started building up confidence and actively ensured my contributions within the teams are understood and valued. Today, there is slow progressive change. Organisations have placed great emphasis on inclusion and diversity, and are actively driving the promotion of women in technical and leadership positions.”

Mazibuko concludes by saying work is required from both the private and public sectors to champion more women in STEM, highlighting careers and opportunities for young girls within the engineering industry.

“Introduction to STEM careers for young girls needs to happen at foundational level and not be a discussion only to be held with high school students as it will be [too] late already.”

Lerato Mazibuko, electrical engineer at Anglo American Coal.
Lerato Mazibuko, electrical engineer at Anglo American Coal.