The case for diversity in the African tech sector

"I was at a tech networking event and somebody asked if I was the waitress." This is an often repeated anecdote at many women in tech gatherings; bringing to fore the harsh realities of a glaring lack of women in the tech industry.

Silicon Valley has battled this problem for years. First, tech companies actively hid the extent of their diversity problems arguing that the gender and race makeup of their teams were a trade secret. Then in 2013 and 2014, the top tech companies in Silicon Valley began making their diversity numbers public. Those numbers were shocking- more than 90% of the engineers in all the top tech companies were male. The corporate world wasn't faring any better as well. Only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. In fact, according to a 2015 report by Weber Shandwick, only 8% of companies worldwide with revenues of at least $500 million have a female CEO.

Africa itself is not much better. The gender disparity in African tech finds its roots in the inequality in access to education for boys and girls. In Sub-Saharan Africa, statistics released by the United Nations reveal that at least 33 million children are out of school. While the situation varies from country to country, it's estimated that overall, at least 56% of these out-of-school children are girls. Out of the 40-something percent of girls that do get into school, an even smaller percentage enter into scientific and technological subjects.

It seems things haven’t always been this way, though.

Lorraine Steyn, founder of KRS

When Lorraine Steyn, founder of KRS, a South African software and application development company, first started coding, “women were 50% of the software field. [The number] started dipping in the late 1980's, and continues to fall. Yet it is such a fantastic career for women, and we deprive the field of a valuable aspect of diversity when women are discouraged from entering IT.”

Across the world, there aren’t a lot of women pursuing careers in science. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics examined the gender gap in science and found that worldwide, only 28% of science professionals are women. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 30% of women are exploring careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM. Female students tend to be concentrated instead in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

What can be done?

It's expected that by 2020, 80% of all future jobs will require a STEM education. People in STEM careers also earn almost double per hour on average than people in non-STEM careers. Furthermore, it's been proven that STEM-oriented economies perform strongly on a number of economic indicators in contrast with their non-STEM counterparts.

Encouraging female participation in STEM careers is the key to Africa's progress. The African Union itself has endorsed a target mandating each of its members to spend 1% of their GDP on STEM research and development. Since it has been identified that African girls at the early school-going age are not being encouraged enough to pursue careers in mathematics and science, several organisations ranging in size, scope, approach and methodology are springing up all over the continent with the overall goal of increasing female participation in STEM and specifically, tech.

Lamiae Benmakhlouf, the Director-General of the Moroccan Information Technopark Company

“In large Moroccan cities, girls are usually top of their class, which is not reflected in the labour market.” This is according to Lamiae Benmakhlouf, the Director-General of the Moroccan Information Technopark Company, which serves as an incubator for startups and SMBs. These girls end up in highly competitive and low-margin fields instead of pursuing careers in STEM. Interestingly, however, in the Technopark, more than 10% of tenant IT companies are headed by women. And of the 2,000 employees of the park, nearly 40% are women.

Kenza Lahlou, Managing Partner at Outlierz

Kenza Lahlou, Managing Partner at Outlierz, a seed investment fund based in Morocco, also shared an interesting trend discovered in the fund’s screening process. Even though only one in 10 applicant startups are founded by women, the quality and the profile of these women founders are usually marginally higher.

African women in tech also suffer from considerable underreporting. There are a lot more women in tech than the public is aware of.

Suhaifa Naidoo, the convener of Girl Geek Dinners Cape Town

Suhaifa Naidoo, the convener of Girl Geek Dinners Cape Town, a bi-monthly networking initiative for women in tech, noticed that women are more cautious about talking about their achievements. “It is always men that are on the covers of business magazines or [are] keynote speakers at conferences and that is because women are often too scared to lean in." Whilst there is indeed a disparity, “we have amazing women leading tech companies but until these women are comfortable shouting to the world that they exist, not many people will do it for them.”

Zimkhita Buwa, Regional Manager at Britehouse

For Zimkhita Buwa, Regional Manager at Britehouse —an African company that provides digital solutions to fellow African and global companies—, who became interested in tech because of a sibling rivalry, diversity can be increased “through two ‘ships’—mentorship and sponsorship.”

It is critical for female “tech veterans” to make themselves accessible to young women coming into the industry. Sponsorship also ensures that those that cannot afford an education in STEM degrees are given the boost they need. This realisation stemmed from Zimkhita’s participation in the Techwomen Programme, a U.S. State Department initiative that identifies emerging leaders from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Participants are invited to Silicon Valley for a 6-week spell where they are mentored by women from large tech companies like Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Sturae Hickley, Ad Operations Manager at Mark1 Media

Initiatives such as this that specifically target women in tech and young girls still in school go a long way to encourage increased diversity in the industry. While an increasing number of young girls, especially in the rural areas, are getting access to mobile devices, “they are simply not aware of the career opportunities available within the tech industry. What we as an industry need to begin doing is reaching out to these young ladies and expose them to what the tech world could mean for them.” That’s according to Sturae Hickley, Ad Operations Manager at Mark1 Media. Women cannot embark on a career they don’t know exists. Thus, workshops and training at the grade school level is a great starting point. “Sometimes all it takes to trigger that passion is to be exposed to it.”

Didi Radebe

This sentiment is also shared by Didi Radebe who runs a mobile

diagnostic lab specialising in Point of Care Testing in South Africa. She believes that a lack of exposure to the field and a dearth of female role models results in low female participation in the industry.

The future looks bright for Africa

There are currently several initiatives geared towards increasing female participation in tech operating across the continent with many more springing up every day. While some like Google’s Women Techmakers initiative and Girl Geek Dinner target women that are already in the industry, others like GirlHype and Code 4 CT target young girls in high school and encourages them to gain skills that will help them leverage technology for social innovation.

There's also Taungana, which runs a high school fellowship program that empowers rural South African high school girls with the opportunity to access and explore a STEM and entrepreneurship curriculum. WomEng is another global non-profit, which started in South Africa and aims to attract and develop the next generation of women engineers. This it does through fellowship programs and GirlEng info sessions that expose young girls to the engineering field and opportunities therein.

In Morocco, eSTEM Morocco is changing how thousands of Moroccan girls think about STEM through mentorship, training, workshops and coding competitions. AFEM is another not-for-profit based in Morocco that facilitates networking and collaboration among female entrepreneurs. With a network of more than 550 women generating more than 40,000 jobs, AFEM also ensures that no woman is left behind by mentoring and providing employment opportunities for unemployed women and girls.

TechHer, Django Girls, WAAW Foundation, Girls in Tech, We Mena, and Visiola Foundation are other initiatives across Africa working to advance science and technology education for African women. There is also a need for men to lend their voice wherever opportuned to promote science and tech education in their communities as well as increase commitments to diversity in the workplace.

With these and many more, an increase in the number of women entering into and practising in STEM fields in the coming years is inevitable. Maybe by the next decade, Africa might even boast of over 50% female participation in STEM. This is the dream.

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