Is AI helping or hindering women in tech?
Women hold only 23% of tech employment positions in South Africa, or 56 000 out of 236 000 ICT roles, according to Women In Tech ZA, an initiative that aims to close the gender gap in the ICT industry through campaigning and raising awareness.
CTU Training Solutions hosted a webinar mid-August to unpack the role of women in technology. Moderator Marlan Nefdt, Head of Program: Computer Aided Draughting/Design at CTU Training Solutions, says the aim of the discussion is to explore the dynamic interplay between AI, technology and innovation, and the role of women in reshaping the landscape. “Innovation is propelling forward at an unprecedented rate, it’s essential to harness the talents of all individuals. How are women catalysing change and overcoming challenges, steering the course of AI to create a more transformative future?
“Women bring a unique perspective to problem solving as well as the evolution of technology, AI and machine learning. Yet the participation of women has declined. Why is this and how do we combat it?”
Professor Johan Steyn, founder of AIforBusiness.net, agrees there aren’t enough women in the AI and automation space. “Perhaps this is owing to the educational system or societal issues. There aren’t enough female leaders for young girls to look up to and aspire to.”
Nefdt believes implementing mentorships and getting the right people involved in the programmes will be a good first move.
The female stereotype
Joyce Charles, Group Digital Officer at Legal Expenses Insurance Southern Africa (LEZA), agrees that AI is reinforcing stereotypes around women and widening gender parity. “We need to take an active role and lead young women into the industry, changing the narratives that AI is putting out there.”
Nompumelelo Modisane, web designer at VA-Bar, says the education system plays a significant role. “We need to encourage coding earlier on at school to foster young girls’ interest. Peer pressure can play a role, from educators, friends and family. It’s regarded as unusual for a girl child to show interest in the technology space. We need to normalise technology in the home to foster change.”
Loraine Vorster, Vice-President for Business Development Africa/ANZ at CompTIA, adds: “When they have to choose subjects at school, girls tend to be guided in a certain direction. This problem isn’t unique to SA, it’s a global issue. Also, the confidence gap among ladies is a reality. Girls feel they can’t do technology. The change needs to start at home, changing perceptions and teaching kids differently.”
Steyn highlights the societal challenges faced. “Young girls are either parents themselves or looking after their siblings. The pressure on women from a purely economic survival point of view is bigger than that on boys. Another issue is that hungry children don’t learn. So there are multiple societal issues that can make it difficult for them to study coding. Yes, we need to grow people who are technology fit, but there’s a lot that needs to happen at the back end.”
Modisane believes that learners should be exposed to more hands-on learning and building models earlier on, normalising the practical use of the technology subjects that they’re studying.
Nefdt summarises: “Collaboration should start within the schools, organising mentorships, projects and workshops to provide first-hand insight into STEM careers and give learners an opportunity to practice what they’re learning.”
Charles says the private sector needs to have job shadowing workshops for children of all ages, not just from matric and tertiary. “We need learners to experience what it’s like in the workplace, what job opportunities there are. They need to be exposed to a variety of job opportunities where they will hopefully find the passion they have for IT and technology and STEM-related vocations. Women sometimes drop off because they don’t necessarily have the type of support they need, or they lack confidence. We need to build that confidence in women from a young age.”
Eugene Brockman, Manager of Tech Talent Solution at Capitec, says the challenges can be insurmountable. “In school, very few girls express an interest in technology. Often parents don’t have the meta skills to advise their children on careers they can’t relate to. I agree that the education system is flawed, but we also don’t have career guidance for pupils. Often they don’t want to study further, and if they do want to, how do they know what to study or how to choose an education partner?
“There’s a huge disconnect between what the government and SETA say is needed, and what industry actually wants and needs. Bridging this requires an industry-wide intervention. Women and men in technology can do so much by partnering with local schools and talking about what a career in tech looks like and what the different avenues are. Career guidance is key.”
He believes there’s a need to hold training institutions accountable and track the shift from training institutions into employment.
Modisane adds that if we want to be an innovative country, we should have an innovative mindset. “AI and machine learning aren’t just confined to the tech industry. It should be taught in each and every subject in the earlier development stage of the up-and-coming generation.”
Finding a role model
Nefdt adds: “In SA, technology is still largely dominated by men. How does this impact women when it comes to finding role models?”
Rizanne Oosthuizen, managing director and creative lead at ProfileMe, says a scarcity of female role models creates a perception issue. “We get fewer women entering the workforce, the male workforce grows, and we end up with a non-inclusive workforce. Women entering the tech workspace don’t find it friendly because the current workspace is tailored for men. We need to make a concerted effort to find female role models and then actively shine a light on them on the digital platforms that learners use.
“However, we don’t actually have enough female role models to do this.”
She continues: “We need to know how they understand technology, as well as what a job is going to look like in 10 years. Off the back of that, we need to educate the educators so that they can guide youngsters, but we also need to get the parents digitally literate. There should be initiatives sponsoring digital learnerships at schools so that learners can start their first job while doing their tertiary education.
“In this way we can hopefully create digital leaders coming through the ranks who are strong role models.”
Women in the workplace
Charles highlights that women don’t always get the support they need from men in the workplace. “Sometimes support comes from other women in the business, outside the IT space. Women need to engage with one another, regardless of where they are in the business. It’s about caring for the women around you, working with the men, and learning from one another.”
Brockman believes the challenge with getting women into the tech space lies on the supply side. “We need women in mid- to senior-level roles. Generally, men do want to support women and have diverse voices around the table. We need to look at youth development programmes and see how we can achieve greater gender parity.
“The conversation needs to shift to become about technology, with gender becoming a secondary topic. It’s about getting women into the funnel. Sometimes family responsibilities slow down women’s trajectory to higher levels in the business. Companies need to build he-for-she campaigns and ensure that women are included in their succession planning.”
Modisane says women need support structures both on the home front and in the workforce. “Starting a family shouldn’t stop you from having a career.” She agrees that more work needs to be done to eliminate imposter syndrome.
More inclusive technology
Nefdt says technology should be more inclusive to ensure AI and machine learning are less biased and meet gender demand. “How do we get more women into decision-making roles?”
Brockman says: “We need a wider funnel to start with, and to grow women leaders in the business. Succession planning and leadership development programmes must focus on gender parity.”
He believes that women should be their authentic selves. “It’s okay to have a family or not want a family, or to dress however you want to. The business needs to see the holistic person and allow them to play the role they want to in a way that makes them shine.”
Vorster disagrees with his outlook, saying that women’s commitments to their families aren’t always understood within the business. “You can’t be yourself to thrive and survive.”
Oosthuizen finds value in both perspectives. “In a tech team environment, it’s about output and skills, regardless of gender. If both men and women are driven by the output, there’s mutual respect. Businesses need to bear in mind that some of their female employees might need a different approach to their day. They need to consider tailoring the environment to an individual, considering the type of leadership that works for them and where they’ll flourish. However, what’s also needed is a culture in which men understand that.”
Steyn says the gender conversation isn’t 100% binary. “You aren’t always on one side or the other, you need to put a lens of the individual person on top of that. We’re all so different. Gender diversity is important, but so is neurodiversity.” He points out that some people who work in AI fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, so there’s a need to accommodate individual differences alongside gender ones.
AI and women
Steyn adds that we’re lagging most of the world when it comes to technology and AI initiatives. “We’re currently in the 4IR, but we’re struggling to feed people and keep the lights on, let alone deploying AI.”
He believes the private sector can help government to lay out the country’s digital future. “We as South Africans will have to take our AI future into our own hands. When it comes to the role of women, we need to ensure that AI is more inclusive. We need to point this technology in the right direction for our children’s sake.”
Oosthuizen says as AI is integrated into the workspace, one of the biggest concerns is job displacement. “A lot of the roles that typically women would be in, such as customer service, for example, are now ready to be automated. There should be space for companies to absorb and reskill these workers back into different roles. If we look at machine learning, the more it learns biases, the more it outputs that.”
She explains what she means by that: “If AI is deployed in recruitment, there might be a bias towards male applicants.”
Nefdt asks how the integration of digital literacy skills into education will affect the job market.
Vorster says repetitive jobs are mostly at risk. “People need to be open to learning new skills, and to using AI as a tool. Women need to take their lives into their own hands, think forward and acquire new skills.”
Oosthuizen thinks it’s important to get learners into the digital world as early as possible. “We need to change the curriculums, but we also need to incorporate SMMEs to consult outside of the curriculum to make up for any shortfall. High school learners should have access to scholarships that have an internship component. This will create a funnel of mentors for the next batch of learners. There has to be more collaboration between STEM and SMMEs to create a diverse breeding ground for learners to thrive.”
Charles is concerned about the culture of instant satisfaction that prevails among children. “If they can see the value in what they’re learning at a young age, the application of what they’ve learnt, they’ll be much more excited to learn it. This can be achieved through SMMEs providing opportunities to do work shadowing and workshops and hands-on application of what they are learning.”
Modisane believes technology needs to be more accessible to women, as well as in outlying areas. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between family and career, they just need support structures.”
Steyn says: “Africa has the youngest and fastest-growing population. We need to use technology as our support structure rather than our overlords.”
Vorster says every child wants to learn, it’s a matter of having access – and that’s not equal at the moment.
Charles agrees there’s a need to get young people on the right path early on.
Finally, Oosthuizen says: “This is an exciting time in tech, an exciting time to be a woman working in tech, and to be a woman in tech leadership.”
To further expound on the potential impact of AI in the workplace, CTU Corporate Training Unlimited, a division of CTU Training Solutions, is hosting a free virtual masterclass on AI in human resources. 'Leveraging AI in Human Resources for Organisational Success' will be held online on 5 October 2023, facilitated by Prof Johan Steyn, the founder of AIforBusiness.net. To register for free, please click on the link below:
For more information and to explore the event's potential impact, visit https://ctutraining.ac.za/ctuai_hrmasterclass/.