More advocacy, mentorship needed to close ICT gender gap
Despite the efforts of many corporates and stakeholders, the South African ICT sector still has a significant gender gap and greater efforts need to be made to create a supportive environment for women to thrive in the industry.
This is according to speakers at an executive round table hosted by WIOCC and Open Access Data Centres (OADC) in collaboration with ITWeb in Johannesburg last week.
The event focused on overcoming barriers to gender transformation in ICT, noting that little progress had been made in closing the gender gap in recent years.
Samantha Perry, co-founder of WomeninTechZA, noted: “Sexism in the industry hasn’t changed, there is still an ‘old boys club’ mentality in many organisations, and unfortunately, some women in ICT ‘gatekeep’ and prevent other women from progressing. We have to pave the way for the next generation of women in ICT,” she said. “We need to act now as an industry to enable our women to develop digital products and services that are relevant for Africa’s women.”
Keneilwe Gwabeni, group CIO at Assupol, outlined her journey from growing up in a rural village in Mahikeng to taking on the role of CIO at major enterprises.
“My mother heard on the radio that maths and science were important for career opportunities, so she pushed me in this direction. The first time I saw a PC was at university, and my first jobs in IT saw me facing many barriers,” she said.
Gwabeni said she had persevered to make herself visible and indispensable, sought mentorship and upskilled herself. “The hardest thing to learn was soft skills,” she added. “For example, in the rural area where I grew up, it was disrespectful to look elders in the eye. Yet in corporates, I learned that it is important to look people in the eye. I had to unlearn and relearn.”
Gwabeni noted: “The corporate world is a jungle, and the higher you go, the colder it becomes. The politics are real – you have to make an effort to understand the politics and powers and use them to your advantage. Showing the world you can do it isn’t showing off – it’s changing the narrative.”
She emphasized the importance of the right mentors, career sponsorship, and support structures at home.
Dr Sayuri Moodliar, head of ESG at Open Access Data Centres, said many young women she encountered in her role as a mentor were held back by their misconceptions and self-doubt. “Young women often say ‘I’m not a science or numbers person’. I tell them there is no such thing – everyone has the capacity to learn. And not everyone enters the ICT sector as a computer engineer. There are many roles in ICT.”
She also advised women mentors and young women in ICT to also speak about failures and traumas that affect their careers. “When mentoring, we have to understand that people are complex and many have experienced setbacks or trauma such as abuse. We need to be open to such conversations,” she said.
Dr Moodliar noted that many women entering the ICT sector may feel inadequate because of their backgrounds. “Many women I mentor have a sense of inadequacy about where they came from and feel they don’t fit into this corporate world. We need to let young people know that they can learn the soft skills required for this,” she said. “You also don’t have to participate in a formal mentorship programme, you can make a difference in everyday conversations with young people in your environment.”
Dikeledi Lerefolo, a graduate of the MDCS Skills Academy, called for more support and mentoring, and more inclusive workplaces in the ICT sector. “ICT opens doors to opportunities and shapes lives, but women have remained under-represented for too long. Gender equality is a strategic imperative on the path to economic growth. When women thrive in ICT, our entire community benefits,” she said.
MDCS Skills Academy is an accredited Services Seta Training Provider enabling ICT learnerships and bursaries. WIOCC Southern Africa sponsors female learners and disabled learners at the MDCS Skills Academy programme, and has also provided the Academy with a mobile ICT facility to take computer training to youth in remote areas.