by Maubate Kekana, Head of Absa’s Technology Strategy
If you were asked to picture a software developer or data scientist, what would you see? Is this person young? Intelligent? A ‘geek’? Are they a man? If your answer was not yes to all those options – particularly the last one – you would be the exception rather than the rule.
The statistics don’t lie: only about 30% of the current science and technology workforce in Africa is comprised of women, with less than that as software developers. In a world where approximately 80 percent of all jobs created in the next ten years will require a blend of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), this indicates a considerable gap to fill.
With a changing landscape characterised by rapid developments in areas like automation, AI and big data and the rise of agile start-ups that many young developers are looking to join to be part of the disruption happening across industries and all aspects of our lives, we have seen an increase in opportunities and the number of women working in the sector.
However, there is still some work to be done to get more girls interested in pursuing careers in the field and to enable women to climb the ladder into leadership positions. Women in the field – in tech in financial services, but also working more broadly across industries such as law or media – continue to face challenges in gaining a greater footprint in the industry.
Succeeding despite the challenges
Many women find it difficult to fit in to what often seems like a ‘boys club’ and some even experience harassment as a result of ingrained stereotypes and the perception that it is better suited to men. This is exacerbated by a general lack of confidence, and the fear of stepping on toes. The most effective way to overcome these challenges is to be courageous and be willing to put your hand up to take on new opportunities and additional responsibilities.
A hunger to continue learning and get upskilled – even if it means asking the ‘stupid’ questions – is also essential. As women working to carve a niche for future generations in the sector, we are going to have to continue to prove ourselves and illustrate that we can adapt to and stay ahead of the rapid pace of innovation. Making the most of the knowledge and expertise of people you look up to in the industry, which can take the form of both formal and informal mentors, is one key way to do this.
Another particularly critical aspect of succeeding in the field is harnessing skills beyond just technology: working in the sector is so much more than writing lines of code, so women need to be able to develop wider skills that will add value to the business as a whole.
Of course, there are more factors at play than pure perseverance and personal commitment on the parts of women working in tech. An enabling and open culture at an educational and industry level can also help turn the tide and make it more commonplace for women to work and lead the sector.
Creating an enabling environment for young girls and women in tech
We need to start empowering and inspiring girls to pursue careers in the space from a young age and provide the necessary tools and support to ensure they are able to follow that path without barrier. It needs to be a collective effort to support both the current and future generations of women in tech – and hearteningly, it appears that more people and organisations are recognising the value of women in technology.
Women are well suited to careers in tech because it is about problem solving and finding solutions, which women have proven to be particularly good at. Women also happen to comprise approximately half of the world’s users of technology products, so it makes sense that women should be playing an integral role in deciding what those products and solutions look like, and how they work.
Absa, for example, has in the last few years put several initiatives in place in order to nurture the emerging talent in the field. The bank first introduced its ‘Bring a girl/boy child to work day’ initiative nearly six years ago to teach children what it would be like to work in technology in a corporate environment.
This led to the introduction of a career day, which featured the bank’s suppliers speaking to children to build their knowledge of the sector and to inspire them to pursue study opportunities in the space. That led to a project to introduce and update digital libraries at beneficiary schools.
The way forward
The bank found there was still room for growth and just over three years ago started Girls in Tech, a multi-year programme through which the bank engages with female learners on an ongoing basis throughout their high school careers to expose them to technology environments and opportunities.
As part of this, the students spend a week learning to code at the bank’s Digital Academy. Absa’s Digital Academy more broadly offers a rigorous four-month training programme to develop raw talent and provide them with hands-on skills that can be taken straight into the workplace. There is also the Rising Eagles Graduate Programme to develop young talent.
As initiatives like this continue to be introduced by more organisations across industries, we will ultimately see a more rapid and noticeable shift as more girls and women take their places in the tech world.