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The female force driving technology

July 31, 2013 • Features

On Friday 12 July 2013 the name Malala Yousafzai was etched into the annals of United Nations (UN) history. The Pakistani teenager, who made worldwide headlines after surviving a gun-shot wound to the head, inflicted by the Taliban, addressed the global body at its headquarters in New York and spoke of the general rights of women and that of young girls to education.

MalalaYousafzai

Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. (Image source: malaladay.org)

Yousafzai emphasised the power that lay in education, stating that “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first!”

“Women and children are suffering in many ways, in many parts of the world…  many schools have been destroyed in Nigeria,” the youngster added.

Recently, in the African country, global media reported on a pre-dawn attack on a boarding school in North East Nigeria. It was an attack that claimed the lives of both pupils and teaching staff.

With access to education and safer environments for tuition being identified as key challenges internationally and in Africa, the level of representation of female professionals within the ICT sector at large has come under scrutiny.

In April this year Thuli Sibeko, organiser of the annual South African Girls in ICT event, warned that the country needs to actively encourage young girls to consider technology as a career option if it (South Africa) is to address skills shortages in the sector and unemployment.

Sibeko, the managing director of Anglo African Events, said the technology sector offers “an extraordinary opportunity” for girls and young women to forge successful careers in a field where there are expected to be two million more ICT jobs than there are professionals to fill them in the next ten years.

“In a country where there are millions of unemployed young people, it’s important to break the existing stereotypes that technology careers are ‘too hard’ for girls, or ‘unfeminine’ or even ‘boring’,” said Sibeko. “Education and skills training – and a change in attitudes – are vital to ensure women are not left behind.”

Dr Rebecca Parsons, CTO at software development company, ThoughtWorks, described the low number of women in ICT in Africa as ‘woeful’ and identified the focus on individual work and a lack of role models as two major challenges.

“Development roles, leadership pipelines and leadership development all need attention.  We need more role models for women in technology, and this situation is something we are working hard to address.  For example, there’s an organization called Black Girls Code that was founded in the US and that we have brought to Africa.  Programs such as this help build the pipeline, but we need to consider the challenges women face at all stages of the pipeline,” she said.

Globally, an initiative, the International Girls’ in ICT Day, is marked on the last Thursday in April every year and backed by ITU (International Telecommunication Union) Member States in accordance with the ITU Plenipotentiary Resolution 70 (Rev. Guadalajara 2010).

The Resolution stems from a Plenipotentiary Conference of the ITU in 2010, hosted to deliberate on “Gender mainstreaming in ITU and promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women through information and communication technologies.”

Events across the world are held in celebration of the Day and offer the opportunity for all stakeholders in ICT to promote access to technology for girls and women, and encourage institutions to take greater cognizance of this issue.

According to a directory of ITU member states, currently available, there are 54 African Member States.

Women who inspire

If the level of industry attention and focus is anything to go by, then it is no surprise that the name Ory Okolloh is prominently covered. Ory has been covered extensively by global business, financial and technology press, primarily for co-founding Ushahidi.com (the Swahili word for ‘patriot’), which, as the site explains, is “a non-profit tech company that specialises in developing free and open source software for information collection, virtualisation and interactive mapping.”

She was ranked in second place on ITNewsAfrica’s Most Influential Women in Science and Technology feature list and has been profiled by Forbes.

A respected figure within African and global technology circles, Okolloh is described by Forbes as “a Harvard-trained lawyer, activist and blogger…. widely acknowledged as one of the most influential women in global technology.”

Okolloh this year joined Omidyar Network as a director overseeing investments. Prior to this appointment she held the position of Policy Maker for Africa within Google and has been accredited with the promotion of Internet access for African users, encouraging content creation and is vocal about the representation of women in ICT.

Another technology professional who has made her mark in the traditionally male-dominated ICT industry is Funke Opeke, who leads Main One Cable Company in Nigeria.

Opeke is an experienced telecommunications executive who founded Main Street Technologies. After a twenty-year career in the US, Opeke returned to Nigeria in 2005 as the Chief Technology Officer of MTN Nigeria. She also advised Transcorp on the acquisition of NITEL and briefly served as the interim Chief Operating Officer, post acquisition of NITEL.

Opeke is also featured on ITNewsAfrica’s Most Influential Women in Science and Technology list.

Ladies seriously considering a career in ICT would also do well to review the example of Isis Nyong’o, the Vice President and Managing Director of the African operation of mobile advertising network InMobi.

Nyong’o previously led Google’s business development initiatives in Africa, where she specialised in mobile partnerships and was responsible for the development of Google’s Africa content strategy.

In fact, there are a number of female professionals who form part of the continent’s growing science and technology landscape.

A list of these professionals could include the likes of Oreoluwa Somolu, Dr. Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane and Doreen Ramphaleng-Motlaleng.

Unemployment hits women hardest

Job creation coupled with the role of women in emerging markets in Africa is a topic that is growing in significance.

In South Africa, for example, official unemployment figures released by StatsSA in its Quarterly Labour Force Survey, as reported on the Citizen newspaper, say that between the first and second quarters of 2013, 118 000 of the 122 000 people without jobs in this period were women.

Research suggests that the country’s unemployment rate now stands at 25,6%.

An excerpt from an article penned by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, published on Project Syndicate in March this year, states: “In the wake of the global economic crisis, emerging markets have become the engines of worldwide growth. But these countries face growing constraints to sustainability, social cohesion, and political stability, including erosion of their international competitiveness, environmental degradation, weaknesses (including corruption) in national, local, and corporate governance, wasted human capital, and growing social, economic, and gender inequality,

Failure to make full use of women’s talents undermines emerging markets’ economic development, while the marginalization and abuse of women threatens their social advancement and impairs their political stability. With most countries worldwide facing continued economic uncertainty, the international community has a vested interest in emerging economies’ resilience, collective capacity to sustain global demand for goods and services, and ability to confront the challenges, such as gender inequality, that threaten their success.”

Chris Tredger – Online Editor

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