Barbara McCarthy, Global CTO at international mobile top-up platform Ding whose African operations are headquartered in Cape Town, tells us about how African women are making a huge contribution to technology. She tells us: “Successful women in technology and the sciences must be celebrated and brought to the fore so that they are visible.”
The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 was #EachforEqual – an equal world is an enabled world. As a woman in technology and one of a very small number of female Chief Technology Officers, I think a lot about the need to champion women in the areas of innovation and technology and to promote the need for equality.
As a global business, Ding’s customers come from communities across the world so we see progress through a global lens and it is dispiriting to see that despite enormous progress in secondary school enrolment among girls across the globe, there continues to be a wide gender digital divide in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and design.
This is especially so in the developing world’s where many of our customers live, and even more so in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is only right that – with Africa’s soaring youth demographic – we ask a painful question: Can the United Nations’ fifth sustainable development goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls ever be realised on the African continent?
Education is key
Before examining women in STEM in Africa, it’s very important to note that this is not a uniquely African challenge: UNESCO intelligence shows that only 35% of students in higher education globally are women – with only 3% in technology. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution evolves and the repercussions of AI and automation unfold, these are alarming figures. This is not a problem that is unique to developing economies – it is perhaps heightened in these regions but it is certainly a global issue.
For me personally, education has undoubtedly been the thing that has provided me with the opportunities I have today. Coming from a large family, with parents who were not afforded the benefit of completing their secondary education – their determination to provide me with the best education they could, is what has defined me and given me my drive, passion and opportunity to improve myself every day.
The awareness of the importance of educating and providing equal opportunities for girls is growing and in Africa we know of course that there has been progress.
A 2019 Brookings Institute analysis says that: ‘With 11-and-a-half years to go, Africa is relatively on track to meet at least three of the United Nations goals: SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 15 (life on land)’.
Yet there is still a way to go – according to a 2019 report on education and literacy from UNESCO, nine million girls between the ages of about six and 11 in Africa will never go to school at all, compared to six million boys.
In addition to the enrolment and exclusion challenge is the reality across the world that an extraordinarily low percentage of girls choose technology and STEM subjects. To achieve sustainable development goal five (on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls), more girls need to be staying on from primary school into secondary school – and we need to see many more girls studying STEM and technology. One approach (outside of policy) is encouragement through role models.
Invisible role models
The importance of positive role models is something which cannot be underestimated. In my own life my eyes were opened every year when I was a child when an uncle who was a missionary in Peru returned with stories of people and places far outside my world.
He talked of lives and experiences which were significantly different from my own and helped to open my eyes to the privileges I had. These stories served to add to my determination to try to experience the world and understand it better. Understand that we are all different, with different priorities and needs. Different but equal.
Role models have a vital role to play in inspiring young people to gain the confidence to take a leap and explore opportunities outside of their traditional comfort zones. For girls, this means seeing successful women in traditionally male careers such as sports, the sciences or technology.
Successful women in technology and the sciences must be celebrated and brought to the fore so that they are visible. The good news is that there is a growing ecosystem of players committed to the cause, including organisations whose entire focus is on women in STEM.
The African Netpreneur Prize (ANPI) is a great example. Launched in 2018, ANPI is Alibaba Founder, Jack Ma’s, flagship entrepreneur programme in Africa, led by the Jack Ma Foundation. The prize is an annual competition that sets out in search of entrepreneurial heros from any of Africa’s 54 countries who have the passion, expertise and desire to inspire millions of other ambitious Africans to take the leap and start their own journey as an entrepreneur.
It awards a share of a cash prize of $1 million to an Africa entrepreneurial hero every year for 10 years and, while open to all, specifically seeks to root out successful women entrepreneurs and those in the technology sector.
Previous winners include: Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Founder and CEO, LifeBank (Nigeria), who won first prize. LifeBank uses data and technology to help health workers discover critical medical products. The company has saved over 5,300 lives in Nigeria.
Another successful female entrepreneur shortlisted for the award is Kevine Kagirimpundu, Co-founder and CEO, UZURI K&Y (Rwanda). The company is an African-inspired ecofriendly shoe brand established in Rwanda. Kevine is the Co-founder and CEO of UZURI K&Y, and she is passionate about ending global waste while also leveraging her creativity to create employment opportunities for her community.
The ecosystem of women in technology is also being boosted in Africa by women-focused organisations such as Soronko Academy – the first coding and human centreed design academy in West Africa. It is part of a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to use technology to drive human potential. The academy was started to scale and sustain the impact of a project called Tech Needs Girls.
Tech Needs Girls is a movement and a mentorship programme to get more women and girls to create technology. Its approach is to teach and encourage women and girls to lead and innovate through learning to code. To date, it has trained 4,500 girls and it has over 200 mentors who are all either computer scientists or engineers.
They serve as educators and role models, teaching girls to code – including those from the slums and ensuring that each girl gets to go to university instead of being forced into early marriage, which continues to act as an enormously damaging social and cultural practice in some African communities.
“It’s impossible to imagine the future of science in outer space, or embrace its challenges, without the talents of women being at the heart of it”. These powerful words come from the astrophysicist Ersilia Vaudo of the European Space Agency.
Placing women front and centre in the crucial development of technologies, medicines, engineering and digital industries means doubling the intellectual capital in those sectors (which are dominated by men) and provide women with unfettered freedom to achieve their wildest dreams. We at Ding believe we must do all we can to inspire all women and girls across the world – on International Women’s Day and every other day of the year.