SA tech firms strive to disrupt gender status quo

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 03 Sept 2021

South African technology firms are stepping up efforts to hire more women, as they also press forward to ensure more women progress to C-suite roles.

Although more women have entered SA’s male-dominated tech industry over the past few years, defying the status quo remains a tough mission, with women still significantly under-represented within the sector, and men still earning higher salaries.

Only 23% of tech jobs are held by women in SA – out of 236 000 ICT roles, according to a study by Women in Tech ZA.

The imbalance between men and women in the global technology sector is unlikely to be remedied unless organisations, schools and universities work together to change entrenched perceptions about the tech industry, according to a PwC report.

Cisco, SAP, BCX and Dell told ITWeb their company culture is changing, as they prioritise paving multiple pathways and introduce initiatives to ensure women enter and pursue careers traditionally considered as being for “men only”.

Charmaine Houvet, senior director for growth, public policy and government strategy at Cisco, says the company has a long-running commitment to achieving gender equality, and diversity numbers have improved to 40% of the executive leadership team comprising of women, and 53% are diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity.

“Interestingly, I note that more companies are listing gender equality as a priority and yet this is not showing up in senior leadership representation. At Cisco, we believe gender balance happens in companies only if it is intentionally led by the CEO and exco.

“To ensure equal pay for equal work, Cisco expanded its existing global pay parity programme to include not just the examination of salaries, but also promotions, stock and bonuses. We want to look at all the individuals across the company that are getting promoted and ask ourselves if we see balance and equity in that process.”

Houvet says countries and companies have adopted regulatory and legislative tools to improve the status quo, but this is not proving to be effective overall, although there are limited pockets of excellence evident.

Charmaine Houvet, senior director for growth, public policy and government strategy at Cisco.
Charmaine Houvet, senior director for growth, public policy and government strategy at Cisco.

“Once women are attracted into an organisation, very little effort is put into developing and retaining them. In addition to developing credible peer networks, mentoring, coaching and sponsorship, I believe it is essential for senior leadership to actively lead, communicate and own the process. It must not be seen as another tick-box compliance exercise, or women will forever remain under-represented in one of the most critical sectors in the economy.”

Genevieve Koolen, human resources director at SAP, says there is significant emphasis on gender diversity across its global organisation, having set a global goal of having 50% women employee representation by 2030.

“In SAP Africa, we have reached an impressive 46% of women in our organisation already – an achievement we are very proud of. Furthermore, three of our five executive board members in Africa are women, including our MD. We are driving a strong focus on developing and advancing women in our business.”

SAP reviews its gender representation numbers against its employment equity targets every quarter, and sets a target towards meeting them through its recruitment process, she adds.

Where possible, SAP also ring-fences roles that HR thinks requires better gender representation and then headhunts accordingly.

“This is only the beginning, and we have a long way to go. Diversity, as you know, is a global challenge that requires constant commitment and systemic change in organisations. At SAP, we are edging a little closer every day,” adds Koolen.

Hope Lukoto, chief of human resources at BCX, notes the firm has taken steps to ensure its environment enables the recruitment of more women into technical positions, supported by learning and development programmes geared towards upskilling for opportunities.

BCX has 34% female representation within the organisation.

“As part of the technology sector, gender representation has been a challenge; however, we have committed to continuously refreshing our transformation strategy, with the goal of 45% representation in the next three years.”

BCX places emphasis on equipping women for promotion, through robust talent management strategies and succession management. Gender representation policies have also been weaved into the entire value chain, she points out.

Increasing profit margins

A 2016 McKinsey Women Matter Africa report makes a solid business case for increased gender diversity, highlighting that organisations with more women in leadership positions are more profitable by as much as 20%. This research does not, however, appear to convince organisations.

Koolen believes women remain significantly under-represented in SA’s tech sector due to a couple of factors.

“Firstly, I think it’s simply that the industry started as being very male-dominated. While more and more women are entering this space, the opportunities are sometimes limited as the talent pool is smaller than it is for men who have established themselves in the industry for much longer.”

Secondly, the pace is relentless, and many women find the requirements of working a 12-hour day means they can rarely fulfil their other roles as partners, parents or caregivers in the family, she continues.

Natasha Reuben, head of transformation at Dell Technologies South Africa, comments that women should be encouraged to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, supported though career orientation and skills development initiatives introduced by the public and private sectors.

“Girls need to be equipped to enter into careers in technology through the subjects they study at school and in tertiary institutions. On the education front, [we should be] encouraging women and minorities to take part in STEM subjects to prepare them for STEM careers.

“When it comes to delivering digital skills for the future workforce, more companies should rise to the challenge and ensure women are not just integrated into the company, but receive training or any up-skilling that may be required.”