The world needs more women in the tech space
Boosting women in tech must start with boosting women in society, in education through the study of STEM subjects, and in the workplace.
This Women’s Month, it is apt to consider the position of women in the ICT industry, and what that means for the world. The truth is that women remain deeply underrepresented, and our society is the poorer for it.
The technology space is essentially about innovation: creating and developing new solutions to improve people’s lives. We will only be able to do this optimally when women are intimately involved in the innovation process.
The examples of what happens when women are not considered are alarming. Voice recognition, an artificial intelligence technology helping to drive the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), initially struggled to respond to women’s voice commands. This was because it was developed by men.
There were similar blind spots in the development of artificial hearts. When first developed in 2013, these were three times heavier than an actual human heart, and only 20% of women could accommodate them.1 By contrast, 86% of men qualified for an artificial heart transplant.
When airbags were first introduced, their use was refined using crash-test dummies the same size and weight as an adult male. Over three decades of airbag use, more women and children were dying in crashes despite the deployment of airbags. Only after 30 years was a female crash-test dummy introduced to measure the impact of airbags on women.2
Here again, women’s perspectives were ignored, simply because of the preponderance of men on the tech design team. When women and children die because of this, all of us suffer, and gender transformation of the industry comes to be of deadly importance.
Improving lives must include the lived experience of women, and the best way to achieve this is by encouraging the advancement of women into the technology industry. This will be achieved through two components: education and culture change.
As 4IR gains pace, and trends like automation and robots start to transform the workforce, it will be women who are most affected. Gender inequality means that many of the manual jobs done by women will be automated out of existence, be it with regard to factory work or “sewbots” replacing seamstresses, for instance.
These 4IR trends will also create many jobs. But for women to gain access to them, they need to be empowered with the correct skills and encouraged to enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths).
At present, in the United States for instance, only 35% of STEM undergraduates are women3, and only one in seven women STEM graduates goes on to work in those fields. The World Economic Forum reports4 that women make up only 26% of the STEM workforce in developed countries.
In SA, the gender imbalance is similarly large. The Women In Tech5 initiative asserts that of an estimated 236 000 South African tech jobs, only 23%, or 56 000 of them, are held by women. Fixing this will take real commitment.
But the playing fields are uneven from the very beginning. From childhood, girls are more likely to lose out on a quality education because of the inequality of gender roles and violence against women and children. The low availability of menstrual products, the marginalisation of girls in the family and the fear of violence and harassment on school commutes all handicap women’s life opportunities.
Boosting women in tech must thus start with boosting women in society, in education and in the workplace. This means addressing the root causes of gender inequality: the literacy gap, the pay gap, sexual violence,and employment policy.
This is not simply a moral imperative; women’s empowerment has concrete financial benefits. A study by Catalyst6 found that companies with the most women on their top management teams experienced financial performance 34% better than companies with the lowest women’s representation.
Despite the clear benefits of gender equality, its implementation has been slow. Men have a significant role to play in remedying this. A recent McKinsey report7 found that men are less aware of the unique work challenges that women face, and were less convinced that women can lead as effectively as men.
This speaks to corporate culture. Changing it requires ongoing, clear commitment to gender equality from those at the very top of an organisation. Male managers should sponsor and mentor female colleagues and performance reviews should be restructured to eliminate gender bias; for instance, where these disadvantage women for taking maternity leave.
At Huawei, this has meant emphasising gender equality in employment and prohibiting gender bias in all its forms, and actively supporting initiatives to inspire and upskill women and girls in the tech space where we operate.
As Dr Mohamed Madkour, Huawei's VP for Wireless Networks Marketing and Solutions, said on a recent visit to SA: “The fourth industrial revolution must be built on collaboration. It must include everyone. Women are needed in ICT now more than ever as it is the platform for all industries, and their skills and creativity will enrich many economies.”
The social benefits of women reaching leadership positions in technology are already clear. Companies like NVision, led by engineer Surbhi Sarna, are developing improved technology to detect ovarian cancer. Leah Sparks and Katherine Bellevin have created Due Date Plus, a smart phone-enabled maternity programme. Software created by developer Margaret Hamilton helped put a man on the moon!
In fact, one of the innovations that modern ICT is built on was developed by a woman. Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, with co-inventor George Antheil, invented a type of radio communications that could “hop” from one frequency to another, so that Allied torpedoes could avoid detection during the Second World War. Lamarr’s scientific triumph is now used in modern wireless communication.
These women have been trailblazers, but sadly, they remain in the minority in the technology space. By demanding that they take their rightful place in the workplace, we are campaigning for social justice but also ensuring that the human race is best equipped to meet the challenges of 4IR and of a dynamic, uncertain future.
Huawei is a leading global provider of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and smart devices. With integrated solutions across four key domains – telecom networks, IT, smart devices, and cloud services – we are committed to bringing digital to every person, home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world.
Huawei's end-to-end portfolio of products, solutions and services are both competitive and secure. Through open collaboration with ecosystem partners, we create lasting value for our customers, working to empower people, enrich home life, and inspire innovation in organizations of all shapes and sizes.
At Huawei, innovation focuses on customer needs. We invest heavily in basic research, concentrating on technological breakthroughs that drive the world forward. We have more than 180,000 employees, and we operate in more than 170 countries and regions. Founded in 1987, Huawei is a private company fully owned by its employees.
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