International Girls in ICT Day this year saw new projects set up worldwide to create an environment that encourages girls and young women, at present disadvantaged by a gender-based digital divide of worldwide prevalence, to consider careers in the field of ICT. But why is there a gender imbalance in the technology sector at all, and what’s being done to fix it? The eLearning Africa news team investigates.
By Matthew Labrooy & Alasdair MacKinnon
Whether owing to ingrained stereotypes, discrimination or social deprivation, women have traditionally been in the minority in tech workforces – though their numbers are on the rise worldwide, according to the latest World Development Report. Published last year by the World Bank, the report identified two key ways in which the growth of ICT industries could benefit the empowerment of women: firstly, in the creation of new jobs and economic opportunities, and secondly, by allowing “women around the world to access markets in growing numbers by lowering information barriers and reducing the transaction costs associated with market work.”
ICT-related jobs are consistently ranked among the top 20 in terms of pay, long-term prospects and work-life balance. Yet in many countries, even where anti-discrimination legislation is in force, girls are often discouraged from gaining employment within the sector – already at school age prejudicial media images, misguided careers advice and a dearth of female role models make their effects felt. In South Africa, for example, “where there are millions of unemployed young people, it’s important to break the existing stereotypes that technology careers are ‘too hard’ for girls, or ‘unfeminine’ or even ‘boring’” – this according to the organiser of the South African Girls in ICT event, Thuli Sebeko.
Major ICT companies have begun to create initiatives encouraging women to follow careers in technology. Google, HP, Panasonic and Microsoft have worked together to create a Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT which covers areas such as education, recruitment, career development, and returning to work after leave. The code aims to break existing stereotypes about ICT that further promote a male-dominated workforce, aiming to emphasise the attractiveness of the ICT sector, and encourage female students studying ICT-related topics to work in the field.
Moreover, attracting more women into ICT jobs will not only help address the gender imbalance found in the digital sector but will also empower women globally, in all workplaces.
“I strongly believe that whenever an ICT job is filled by a woman or an ICT business opportunity that would normally go to a man is taken by a woman, the gender equality arrow goes up, and it’s a good omen for woman’s empowerment,” Senegalese feminist and marriage counsellor Mariam Ba recently told Biztechafrica.
ICT offers a practical and concrete solution for women to overcome longstanding inequalities, both in the workforce as well as in personal life. ICT can help women to obtain education (through MOOCs, online training courses or software education tools), employment (through online job searching and telecommuting), access to health services and health information, and to manage their personal income (through online banking and online transactions for example).
What’s more, the 2012 World Development Report has identified that these separate benefits capitalise on each other, creating “positive feedback loops” – change that begets change. “Improvements in one area (higher education) can drive changes in other areas (such as lower fertility and higher labour force participation). Similarly, better labour opportunities can in turn induce more investments in education and in women’s health for the next generation, while equal rights can underpin progress on all fronts.”
While such improvements have by no means reached all women in all situations, it seems that investments in ICT and education work as catalysts for increased equality in all areas of women’s lives.
International Girls in ICT Day is on the 26thApril and more than 100 countries are expected to participate. For more information on International Girls in ICT Day see here.
Among its speakers, eLearning Africa 2013 is proud to count over 60 exceptional women working in ICT in Africa today, whose innovative achievements and foresight are making a substantial impact on the digital sphere.
For more information on the eLearning Africa 2013 programme, see http://www.elearning-africa.com/programme_table.php.