This is my second women’s day celebrated in South Africa, and I love that there’s a holiday dedicated to me. I get to tell the guys in the office “what are you going to do for me today?”
While a day to celebrate womens’ achievements is good, though, is that really all we get? We notice every day that there’s a disparity of women, and especially of women of colour, in technical and IT fields. Right now, more than 50% of the population of South Africa is female, and 41% of the total population are African women. But less than 1% of workers in South Africa’s IT industry are women of colour. It’s a huge issue globally: even in the States only 3% of IT workers are black women.
South Africa wants to be on the top of innovation and technology, but if you want to be a global competitor in IT you can’t afford to ignore nearly half of your own population. You’ll always stay in last place. What we need is a paradigm shift that changes IT here from a white male field to an African field that African women can participate in.
Even in my background – I was an engineering graduate – I was the only African-American woman in my class. Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, noticed these ratios and realised that instead of getting better, the number were declining. So she asked the questions about why women aren’t going in to IT professions.
In Africa especially, women aren’t socialised for technical careers. They’re pushed towards areas that don’t involve computers, maths, science or any subjects that don’t involve STEM capabilities. It’s not through lack of interest, though. It’s to do with lack of access and lack of exposure. In South Africa, the number of women with access to IT is only 17%, which creates a massive digital divide.
On top of that, there’s a huge cultural influence. A lot of people refer to IT as a ‘boys’ club’, and in South Africa it’s very white male dominated (Around 66% of the IT industry is white – Ed), and I’m not sure that’s very friendly or welcoming to young black women.
How do we change the face of IT? How do we make it seem more accessible for women in South Africa? It’s an issue we’re seeing way up high on the practitioner and corporate level, but you have to go down to the root of the problem and ask what turns girls off of IT when they’re younger. At elementary school, girls perform higher than boys at maths and science, but at around 12-13-years-old there’s a shift in interest to non-technical fields.
Which is why we’re bringing Black Girls Code here and aiming it at that group: because that’s where we can introduce them to skills that are hugely in demand, while they’re still thinking what they want to do when they grow up.
In Black Girls Code the focus is on having fun. It’s all geared around playing games, and sometimes they don’t even realise they’re learning a programming language until they have already mastered the basics.
They don’t have to go into careers as coders. They can choose to use that skill for law, or medicine, or photography – it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that they know there are options available and they can use them if they need to.
But to do that we need more role models. We need more women to put themselves forward and help with initiatives like Black Girls Code: We have people from all backgrounds and all over the world living here in Johannesburg who turn up to help, but it’s such a powerful message if they can see more successful women who look like them.
As a continent, as a country, we need to be better at telling our stories. At work, we have a list of over 50 African women who’ve done amazing things with technology and never had a single blog post or news article written about them. No-one hears about them – and that’s maybe a difference between women and men. Men are happy to tell the world when they get it right, we behave more like we’re in a secret skunkworks, with an under-the-radar mentality. We need to learn as females and as nations to raise our successful women onto a pedestal.
It’s the responsibility of the country and organisations to make sure women are seen in these roles. It’s so powerful having a role model.
We need to be more aggressive. It’s like a race, and black women are in last place and we need to give them a catalyst, some sort of super-energised power-up to compete with people who are effectively decades ahead of them when it comes to IT careers. It takes brainstorming and it takes strategising, and there’s lots of conferences for that, but what’s often missing behind that is the action piece.
It’s very easy to go and have coffee, tea and muffins and talk issues at a Sandton conference, but we can’t stay in our safe bubble. We need to get out to the townships and the schools and see what the problems are. We can’t really understand what we’re up against until we see what conditions people are working in. I worry that there are too many people coming up with solutions who’ve never actually seen what they’re dealing with at the grassroots level.
How do we scale initiatives like Black Girls Code and make these role models visible? One of the conferences I’ll be taking part in later in the year is Women 2.1 in Ghana, and it’ll be 1 600 girls from the West African area who are there to listen to amazing women speakers talk. Specifically African women with serious and important jobs, like the SMO of MTN and so on. They may make up just 1% of the executive leadership of the continent, but women are celebrated and girl come and have fun and get inspired. And I think that’s worth a lot more than a dozen government conferences talking around how to develop new lessons in schools.
And the best thing is that it’s run by a Ghanian male, who couldn’t figure out why no-one else is doing it. To replicate that here, we could reach out to a broad base of young women from the townships to the Pretoria suburbs and just tell them that they’re awesome and that they can achieve so much.
Uchenna Moka is a first generation Nigerian-American who lives in Johannesburg and works as a business manager and Pan-African community manager for Thoughtworks in Braamfontein. Moka helped to bring the Black Girls Code movement to South Africa, and regularly talks about the need to encourage to more young women into careers in IT.