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More women 'take a seat' at WeThinkCode campuses

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Nyari Samushonga, CEO of WeThinkCode.
Nyari Samushonga, CEO of WeThinkCode.

Independent software training academy WeThinkCode has achieved its target of recruiting at least 50% women in its 2021 student intake, a long way from the 6% female intake when it started.

This makes the student intake 50% women across all its campuses, says Nyari Samushonga, CEO of WeThinkCode.

Launched in SA in 2015, WeThinkCode officially welcomed its first cohort of students that would complete the two-year digital training course in May 2016. At the time, the academy had a 6% female intake. After trying a few solutions, the women intake rose to about 17% in 2019 but plateaued, according to Samushonga.

In 2019, WeThinkCode launchedits WomenThinkCode= initiative, in partnership with the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation, JP Morgan Chase Foundation and F-Secure, to drive the recruitment of women and increase their retention within the programme.

When the returning and new cohort goes back to campus in the next weeks, the academy will welcome 233 women onto its campuses in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.

Samushonga explains that like everyone else, the academy was recruiting in a passive way. “We’ve been really systematic in saying ‘how can we recruit more women; having recruited them, how do we create an environment where we retain them, and they have as much opportunity to thrive in their learning as the men do.

“Beyond that, we are creating the networks through the mentorship programme so that they [women] can have resilience when they leave the academy and enter the world of work. We can’t necessarily create the same cocoon that’s on a WeThinkCode campus in the workplace. We try to create networks of resilience within the workplace, so that they can also thrive where we’re no longer able to stage everything in a way that’s more equitable.

“WomenThinkCode='s objectives are to increase women's participation in the WeThinkCode programme, to ensure retention during the two years and make sure our women graduates get good jobs.

"With help from our partners, there’s no doubt we’re proving that women are more than up to the job. To get to 50% women representation through the WomenThinkCode= programme in just 18 months means we are speaking the right language and women are hearing us. This makes us extremely excited about the future.”

Intentional approach

Samushonga notes that gender parity is not only an issue for organisations like WeThinkCode, but is a global problem.

“Globally, about 20% of tech roles that are the technical roles, not project management or business analysis, are taken up by women. About 1% of VC [venture capitalist] funding that goes into tech innovation goes to women, globally. What we are seeing is a global problem.

“Like with all discrimination, someone makes an intentional decision to discriminate and then it normalises, and it becomes institutional and structural.”

Speaking of the WeThinkCode representation journey from 6% to 50%, the CEO says it took some intentional effort from the side of the organisation’s leadership to identify and recruit talented women into the academy.

“We had to introspect and say we are a team of women leaders in technology and failing to achieve gender equity; we’ve got to take responsibility. It’s a challenge for everyone to say ‘you are taking responsibility’ and the next one to say ‘it is a key success criteria’ for you.

“The challenge is that if it’s a success criteria – do you react to that failure the way you react to other existential failures? If not, then that tells us something about what you truly believe.

“If you look at careers like accounting, law and medicine, these were all professions that were male-dominated some years ago, and it took some intentionality to drive the inclusion. I think it’s time for tech − we need to step up.”

Navigating the pandemic

Similar to other organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed where WeThinkCode’s weaknesses lie, states Samushonga.

She explains that for SA, the weaknesses are high income inequality, issues with housing, access to data and reliable electricity supply, which are things that make remote work possible. In addition, community – peers to bounce ideas off when studying – is also a challenge.

“Low-income students struggled disproportionately because they were thrust in this digital world that South Africa as a country is not ready for in terms of just its service delivery across the board. Immediately after the first lockdown, we saw the academic performance and skewed towards the low-income students. We were now struggling to keep up the level of engagement and learning.

“The first thing that we did was to get laptops for the students; we also tried to get them data, as well as force circles of communication.

“The truth is that it was the most sub-optimal window of operation, and as soon as we could get our students back on campus, we rented more space and spread them out and did timeshares to reduce the risk of transmission.

“If you really want to effectively train a low-income student who is coming out of the limitations of South Africa’s high school education system, you need them in a room and you need to support them.

“They need to bounce off each other in the learning environment. That has been a true struggle for us, which we’ve managed to work through. My view is the reality is we’ll remain in a hybrid for a while until a more structural issue around service delivery in SA is addressed.”

Future pursuits

WeThinkCode counts Cape Town, Johannesburg, and most-recently Durban among its campus locations.

On expanding campuses to more parts of the country, Samushonga remains coy, but says they are talking to a number of partners around expansion.

“On the inclusion drive, the one area that we are looking at now is rural inclusion. We’ve got low-income but the low-income students on our campuses skew heavily towards urban and peri-urban living.

“We don’t have a high representation of students that are coming from the rural environment. From an inclusion perspective, the next frontier is ‘where are the women from rural areas represented on a WeThinkCode campus’.”

The organisation is looking into how to have campuses that are spread out a lot more.

“One of the things that make it expensive to run the programme is for people to access our campuses. How can we start to have more campuses in more provinces? For example, have a presence in Limpopo, Eastern Cape or Mpumalanga, etc.

“That’s our next agenda…how to ensure rural inclusion in the work that we are doing,” she concludes.

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