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International Women in Engineering Day: Meet the mother-daughter duo recoding the status quo in tech

Presented by Huawei in recognition of International Women in Engineering Day.

Johannesburg, 24 Jun 2024
Tina Mtonga.
Tina Mtonga.

A passion for technology runs across generations in the Mtonga household. Tina Mtonga, a former Huawei Graduate Programme participant, now full-time employee, says without her mother’s mentorship and advice on breaking into the technology sector, she would have ended up working in another field.

“I grew up watching my mom blend creativity with technology to solve problems,” says Tina. “I used to say mum could fix anything, and she really could. She had this mesmerising way of coming up with the most outlandish yet brilliant solution to problems.”

Having inherited her mother’s passion for problem-solving, Tina wanted to chart her own path in the male-dominated tech industry which her mother played a role in transforming. Happiness Mtonga, an independent data analytics and cyber security consultant, paved the way for her daughter's career by encouraging her to pursue internships and attend events by companies in the sector.

Working at Huawei as an account manager, the younger Mtonga’s career trajectory has been accelerated by her participation in the Huawei Graduate Programme.

Happiness Mtonga.
Happiness Mtonga.

Launched in 2017, the Huawei Graduate Programme has uplifted over 150 graduates to secure employment opportunities at Huawei and its channel partners. The programme is a bridge to get young minds who are enthusiastic about the ICT sector from academia and into industry. Participants undergo top-tier training in 5G, cloud computing and artificial intelligence through Huawei ICT Academies in tertiary institutions across South Africa.

Why work in tech?

Happiness chased a career in ICT because she was fascinated by how things work. “This curiosity led me to explore coding, and this ability to create something from nothing using just a computer and my imagination captivated me,” she explains.

As a mother of four daughters, Happiness was driven by the goal of using technology to improve people’s lives.

When asked how her mom’s experience guided and shaped her career path, Tina says: “I consulted with her at every step of the way: from finding out what different tech careers look like to ranting about how difficult I used to find JavaScript when I started out. Learning about day-to-day challenges from a person in a position I aspired to be in was a priceless experience.”

Happiness says she wanted to give her daughter all the things she lacked at the beginning of her career: “I tried to provide guidance and encouragement, share my experiences and open doors for her wherever I could.”

Overcoming challenges in a male-dominated sector

Talking to her mother made Tina understand that working in tech was not going to be like any other career. She wanted to follow her mother’s vision to use technology as a powerful tool for change.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the industry she would fall in love with are still heavily dominated by male workers.

Starting off in the industry, Tina has faced many challenges.

“Sometimes, my ideas were dismissed or overshadowed, and finding role models who looked like me was difficult,” she says.

Happiness adds that “recurring bias and underestimation was a persistent challenge in this male-dominated field for her too”.

The underrepresentation of women in tech happens all the way from university classrooms to executive-level boardrooms. Women make up only 33% of the tech-related workforce and about half of women in the sector leave their jobs before the age of 35.

But the Mtongas will not let these statistics stop them from reaching their dreams.

Working in tech came with added pressures for Happiness, who needed to balance career growth with caring for her family. The persisting gender pay gap in the industry also makes it more difficult for women like Happiness to build lasting careers.

“To overcome these hurdles, I focused on demonstrating my skills and expertise,” says Happiness. “I didn’t compromise on delivering high-quality work and confidently asserting my capabilities.”

She taught her daughter to take on the same attitude and always lean on her support system when she needed to.

“Other than proving my capabilities through hard work and leveraging my unique perspectives, I also looked for mentors who championed diversity and I joined communities that made me feel included,” she says.

Happiness says she wouldn’t change a thing about the difficulties she faced. A smile lights up her face when she says, “my girls are my proudest achievement”.

What is the global picture on the progression of women in STEM?

Historically, the presence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been low. Recent years have, however, seen a shift, where a growing number of women now work in STEM fields.

In countries like the United States of America, only 8% of people in STEM were women in 1970. In 2019, this number had risen to just under 30%. A breakdown of the engineering sector shows that most women (28%) work as chemical engineers, followed by industrial engineers (25%) and then aerospace engineers (17%).

As we mark International Women in Engineering Day, there is still a long way to go in South Africa too. An annual report from the Engineering Council of South Africa shows that only 1% of professional certificated engineers are women and 6% of professional engineers are women.

This has been a pain point, even for South Africa’s government, which faces a significant gender gap throughout all levels of STEM disciplines. If we take a look at progression from higher education alone, only 13% of graduates in STEM fields are women.

How can the industry better support women at the beginning of their tech careers?

There are no simple answers to problems that are deeply rooted in problematic histories. As a first step, Happiness says she’d like to see more female role models being promoted.

We can also “create inclusive policies that address the unique challenges women face”, she says. “Mentorship programmes and leadership development should also be tailored for women so they can make a significant difference.”

Tina already sees a difference between her experience and that of her mother in the sector.

“There is a growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion within the tech industry,” she says, adding that she has seen the industry evolve to become more inclusive, which has also made it more innovative.

She carries a sense of pride in the progress made by her peers in growing the presence of underrepresented people.

“These changes signify progress towards a more equitable and impactful tech landscape,” she says.

Parting words of advice for other women who are beginning their journeys in tech

Reflecting on International Women in Engineering Day, Tina wants future generations to know that having curiosity and an open mind will take them far in the sector. She also says it's important for women to lean on each other in the workspace.

Her mom’s parting words are that “the tech world is vast and full of opportunities for those who dare to dream big”.

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