Mentoring women in technology: Laying out the landscape

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Women at Afchix 2018. Image source: author

It will be helpful for all of us to understand the landscape in which the initiatives for mentoring women in technology exist.  During my 25-year work experience I have witnessed the value of mentoring girls and women to become confident users and implementers of information and communication technology (ICT) tools and solutions. I am passionate about the girl child and I participate in mentorship opportunities at my work place and through the AfChix grassroots initiative that has been in existence since 2004. Attention needs to be paid to the creation of enabling environments for women to succeed in science, information technology, mathematics and engineering.

During my 25-year work experience I have witnessed the value of mentoring girls and women to become confident users and implementers of information and communication technology (ICT) tools and solutions.

A great deal is being said about the digital divide and why it is important to pay attention to individuals, groups and communities that are disadvantaged in terms of access to the internet and the associated digital tools and platforms. These discussions are happening on social media, traditional media and via formal publications. In Africa the digital divide is discussed with reference to various dimensions – the location of disadvantaged communities, their economic status, their educational level and their gender.

The reasons for placing emphasis on the gender dimension of the digital divide include the following:

  1. Future jobs will require technology-related skills. It is therefore important that the capacities of girls and women must be built so that they can have relevant skills for the future job industries.
  2. Emerging future economies will be driven by technology, innovations, creativity and knowledge. For all girls and women to prosper economically it is of paramount importance that they are technologically literate.
  3. It has been proven that work teams that are balanced gender-wise perform more optimally. This is because women and girls bring different and important perspectives into technology solutions. This also applies to “life in general” – the society becomes a better place when men and women work together as teams to champion their “futures”.

Even though it is largely accepted that girls and women must be equal players in our technology-driven world – the reality on the ground is that there are still fewer girls opting for science-based subjects and programs in schools, colleges and universities. This situation renders it difficult for women to benefit from a technology-based economy and industries. There is need for parents, communities, governments and other stakeholders to address this issue by providing mentorship to young girls so that they become confident to take up science-based programs.

The reality on the ground is that there are still fewer girls opting for science-based subjects and programs in schools, colleges and universities.

The 2017 UN Women Report titled "Making Innovation and Technology Work for Women" discusses barriers to women joining careers in STEM and ICTs. The report singles out "gender-science stereotypes" as a key barrier where "men are stereotypically considered as more competent than women in technology, engineering, and innovation".

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has a Women in Science Portal where they revealed that 31% of researchers in Sub-Sahara Africa are women. These statistics were published in June 2018. UIS alludes to the fact that there are leaks in the pipeline. In Benin for example - at the level of a Bachelor's degree in Science, 46% of the students are female, at doctoral level 36% are female and eventually the percentage of female STEM researchers in Benin is 22%.

In addition, women in rural areas face discrimination in relation to access to digital gadgets, digital platforms and the internet. In several African rural societies, the males in a household control the mobile phones for example – while the girl children and women are not prioritized in terms of access to technological gadgets and learning how to use these gadgets. These cultural and social biases need to be addressed to create equity in digital access in  communities.

In several African rural societies, the males in a household control the mobile phones for example – while the girl children and women are not prioritized in terms of access to technological gadgets and learning how to use these gadgets.

The 2017 International Telecommunication Union Report called ICT Facts and Figures continued to raise alarm in relation to what they term the "persistent digital gender gap". In Africa, the proportion of women using the Internet is 25% lower than the proportion of men using the Internet.

If we are to paint an imaginary picture profiling a woman living in a remote and disadvantaged area but having equitable access to the internet and digital gadgets – this ideal picture would look as below:

  • A woman with young children in a village, having access to internet on her mobile phone, receives important health related messages about a disease outbreak and finds it easy to schedule a clinic visit to get her children vaccinated.
  • A mother living in a village and is exposed to the “responsible use of technology” would be able to guide her daughters and sons to use technology responsibly. Her children would not be exposed to risky ways of using digital tools.

The global and regional agenda is quite clear on the importance of improving women participation in general, in the economy, education, health and related capacity building programs.

The goal 5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals focusses on the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. This goal has several targets that include: (1) enhancing the use of enabling technology and information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women and (2) ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka the Executive Director of UN Women adequately described the challenges of achieving gender equality under the sustainable development goal 5 of Agenda 2030. She said that ‘bold change and not incremental change’ would help us achieve Agenda 2030. She called for “an earthquake that will tilt the system altogether, because little and incremental steps will not give us the world that we want".

An earthquake that will tilt the system altogether, because little and incremental steps will not give us the world that we want

The African Union Commission’s Agenda 2063 states that Africa aspires for an Africa where development is people-driven to unleash the potential of women and the youth. The agenda explicitly states that "young African men and women will be the path breakers of the African knowledge society and will contribute significantly to innovation and entrepreneurship. The creativity, energy and innovation of African youth will be the driving force behind the continent’s political, social, cultural and economic transformation."

At a national level, countries have development plans – an example is the Kenya Vision 2030 which aims to “transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment”. This 2030 vision for gender, youth and vulnerable groups is “gender equity, improved livelihoods for vulnerable groups, and a responsible, globally competitive and prosperous young people – providing opportunities all-round for women, youth and all disadvantaged groups”.

The good news is that several formal and informal initiatives exist in Africa to support the implementation of the global, regional and national development plans and strategies. These initiatives include those that build capacities for women to participate in the information technology / computer science sector. However, the importance of these initiatives in contributing to the mentorship of girls and women is rarely compiled, celebrated, nor recognized.

Most of the initiatives that have been established to promote an increase in women in technology in Africa are being championed by women technologists that have been successful in their technological careers. Other initiatives are championed by men that believe in the strategic importance of women in society. Most of these initiatives are largely grass-roots based – having begun informally at a community level. Some of the initiatives are championed at global, continental or national levels.

Most of the initiatives that have been established to promote an increase in women in technology in Africa are being championed by women technologists that have been successful in their technological careers.

Examples of global initiatives include the International Telecommunications Union Girls in ICT Initiative and the UN Women Global Innovation Coalition for Change, Association for Computing Machinery Women, other United Nations Women Programs, among several others.

Examples of Continental Initiatives include AfChix, Women's Net, Women in Tech Africa, among several others.

It is commendable that global, regional and national development agendas have been developed and approved to set the tone for the inclusion of women in general education, science education, technological initiatives, economic programs, health sector and other opportunities. It is important to profile the various formal and informal initiatives to mentor women to become technology champions – so that we monitor the impact of these initiatives in supporting the global, regional and national development policies.

Profiling these initiatives will also provide opportunities for collaboration, streamlining and better aligning them to potential human and financial resources prospects.