African women your time to rise in technology is now

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Lorreta Songola

Our lives have gone digital. From the products we use daily to the content we consume online, tech companies are increasingly influencing the direction of humanity and creating the solutions for the future. But for far too long we have lacked female voices in tech and the time has come to remedy that.

Advances in technology will surely not consider women’s issues if there are no women to point them in that direction. Women need to be part of the conversation that is creating solutions for the future of the human race so that we can achieve equality.

The gender disparity issue is a global one, but the problem is particularly pronounced in Africa. According to Project Syndicate, in sub-Saharan Africa the overall female labour-force participation rate has reached 61%, yet women constitute only 30% of professionals in the technology industry. These statistics throw into light the huge gap between women and men in exploring careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM.

So why then has progress been so slow? There still exists historical barriers preventing women from being equally represented in the industry, let alone in leadership positions. One of these is the misconception that stereotypical female attributes, such as emotion and compassion, are not suitable for tech-related careers. The other is that women cannot be successful in leadership roles because of many other perceived traditional responsibilities they have to fulfil in society, such as being caregivers and  taking care of the home.

Changing misconceptions early is necessary to attract more women to work in technology and encourage future leaders in industry. The imbalances need to be addressed at school and tertiary levels where curriculums have been modified to expose young learners to the world of technology.

So, how do we encourage and support women in technology to persevere in their chosen field, and encourage young women graduates looking to start a career in technology? In its report on factors which contribute to or inhibit women in science, the African Academy of Sciences noted that, “the choice to pursue STEM-related careers was further influenced by other women working in STEM who acted as role models.”  Mentorship can play a pivotal role, for it can influence young women to not only succeed in their chosen fields, but also help them to stay the course in the face of challenges. It also helps  build openness and awareness to roles and jobs they may never have put their hat in the ring for.

With women, true and impactful mentorship programmes extend beyond the career to include work-life balance and life stage transition challenges that they are often faced with. While men are usually  perceived as more logical, women are able to lead with strength and empathy and be an identifiable face to younger women entering the fray.

Leaders, in general can offer greater insights on how to be  successful in the tech arena, lessons can be learnt from both men and women leaders in the sector. In many areas of the tech industry, men still dominate and are the ones occupying leadership positions. Having a male mentor as a woman on your way up can provide an understanding of alternative perspectives, different approaches to problem-solving, new stances on decision-making, and differing methods of collaboration.

But in order for businesses to see more women pursuing technology, there is also need for more women sitting at C-suite level. Women currently hold 19% of tech-related jobs in the top 10 global tech companies, relative to men who hold 81%. In leadership positions at these global tech giants, however,  women make up 28%, with men representing 72%. Although some strides have been made to advance women in tech, more needs to be done. To change the way talent is developed and deployed in today’s world requires the undoing and relearning of age-old thought processes and the formation of new norms and values.

Fostering inclusivity and bringing more women to stand head and shoulders with their male counterparts will help introduce new viewpoints and ideas to emerging technology.

Since constraints and societal gender stereotypes reinforce each other, breaking the cycle will not be easy. Being a woman in technology and indeed any other sector comes with sheer determination, a passion for the industry and understanding that one of the most important tactics in overcoming disparities and biases is being bold and standing one’s ground. It comes down to hard work, long hours, carving a place at the table and excelling in everything that one does.

More than ever women need to break the glass ceiling and challenge the norm.

The tech sector is an amazing place to work, and it is now central to the way we work and the way we live our lives. Yet if we want to develop technologies that are relevant and that support our future needs, we are going to need women to be equal participants in this industry. Without this, our technologies will be developed from the limited perspective of the population.

  • Lorreta Songola is chief business officer (southern African region) Liquid Intelligent Technologies