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Public Sector Forum: Why we’re still failing women in tech

Read time 4min 50sec
Panelists at the PSICT Forum (L-R) Lindiwe Matlali, Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, Tsitsi Marote, Noluthando Pama, Matshidiso Morabi and host Nomonde White-Ndlovu.
Panelists at the PSICT Forum (L-R) Lindiwe Matlali, Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, Tsitsi Marote, Noluthando Pama, Matshidiso Morabi and host Nomonde White-Ndlovu.

Some of government’s most promising solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic have come from young women in ICT, but these young women need to be upskilled in order for government to retain their expertise.

This is according to Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, CIO: Metro Services at the City of Johannesburg. Jairam-Owthar was speaking as a panelist at the recent Public Sector ICT Forum under the theme ‘Women’s Empowerment Through Technology’. She said that although the City has an agenda in place to employ more women in ICT, the pace of implementation needs to be sped up.

The panel, hosted by Absa’s engineering services head of governance and reporting, Nomonde White-Ndlovu, also featured Lindiwe Matlali, founder of African Teen Geeks; Noluthando Pama, enterprise sales and operations GM at MTN Business; Matshidiso Morabi, owner of Ginini Consulting and school transport app LocTransie; and Tsitsi Marote, CEO and co-founder of the Guardian Health app.

Making ICT careers more visible

One of the issues highlighted by the panel is the lack of industry exposure for women, particularly black women in townships and rural areas.

Said Lindiwe Matlali: “Black women only hold 3% of senior IT positions and there’s no pipeline because girls are often stereotyped into the types of careers they can follow.

"But what we see is that once they learn skills such as coding, these young girls become more confident in their abilities. It’s just the lack of exposure that’s the problem, especially for the girls in underprivileged areas like townships.”

Guardian Health’s co-founder Tsitsi Marote said she got into tech 'by mistake'. "I’m one of those township learners and I did really well in high school so I was given typical career choices such as law, medicine or engineering. I had no idea about options like data science.”

“When we buy our children toys, we shouldn’t buy boys telescopes and girls teddy bears, reinforcing that he’s an explorer and she can only take care of others.”

Matshidiso Morabi, LocTransie

Given the lack of female representation in the industry, Marote said when she and her partner Tino Manhema go to meetings, it’s often assumed that he’s the coder and she handles the business side of things. Marote and Manhema co-developed Guardian Health, an app hoping to become a medical one-stop-shop that will assist healthcare workers and patients. “As a woman, I have to work much harder to prove myself. It’s a burden,” she added.

MTN’s Noluthando Pama said that even for women with ICT experience, it doesn’t get any easier. “We assume it will be an easy road if you come into the industry with a qualification and that it will only get easier as you gain more experience. Unfortunately, we’re seen, but still not heard,” she said. “A woman might be explaining something (that she has expertise in) to the boardroom and a male colleague will step in and say, ‘Let me clarify what she’s trying to say…’.  But we have to trust what we’re bringing to the table.”


Grassroots

Asked how meaningful support structures can be created for women in ICT, Matshidiso Morabi of LocTransie – a school transport safety app – said it starts with breaking the gender stereotypes around children. “When we buy our children toys, we shouldn’t buy boys telescopes and girls teddy bears, reinforcing that he’s an explorer and she can only take care of others.”

“It’s also important for us to go back to the children in townships because sometimes as black career people, we tend to leave the townships we’re from, and those children miss the chance to see those kinds of role models,” said Morabi.

African Teen Geeks founder Lindiwe Matlali said: “A lot of us are the first ‘so-and-so’ where we come from, and that’s good. But if you’re still the only one after five years, you’re part of the problem. All you have to do is be available. Suggest books or online courses.”

If you’re still the only one after five years, you’re part of the problem.

Lindiwe Matlali, African Teen Geeks

Matlali’s NPO has launched a number of initiatives to expose more youngsters from townships, especially girls, to coding. One of these initiatives is Knit2code, which Matlali describes as a way of using ‘ancient’ skills to teach new skills. The children are taught to code in Python without the need for a computer.

Knit2code is aimed at six to 18-year-old girls, and Matlali said 16 000 children have been reached through the project. It’s been adopted as far afield as Australia. African Teen Geeks is also currently working with the Department of Basic Education to develop the coding and robotics curriculum for grades R to 9, which is expected to be piloted in 1 200 schools from next year.

The City of Johannesburg’s Jairam-Owthar believes partnerships such as those between African Teen Geeks and the DBE are the best way to get more skills into the public sector.

 “We’re trying to keep up with the latest industry trends, but we’re also trying to get the basics right, so we’re engaging with stakeholders such as our universities to find how we can make the industry more accessible," she said. "There must be thousands of public sector efforts going on around bringing more women into the industry, and we need to align those efforts.”


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