Do women need to act like men to make it in ICT?

Enyonam Kumahor, regional MD of Pan-Africa for global IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks. (Image source: Chris Tredger)

Business leaders and industry analysts from Africa’s ICT sector agree that while there is progress being made to address disproportion (for example the amount of women in the technology market, sufficent representation at leadership level and in terms of remuneration), stakeholders must do a great deal more to achieve equal representation in the market. Awareness and the lack of role models within the sector remain challenges.

Enyonam Kumahor,  regional MD of Pan-Africa for global IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks. (Image source: Chris Tredger)
Enyonam Kumahor, regional MD of Pan-Africa for global IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks. (Image source: Chris Tredger)

At the 3rd Annual Wired Women Conference, entitled Leadership & Innovation in the Digital Economy, hosted by Qualitylife in Johannesburg on 15 October, speakers raised several issues related to innovation and leadership, such as African women and the youth taking on the role as ‘agents of change’ through technology and innovation, creating a culture of innovation, technology being used to improve customer experience and the relevance of social media to leadership.

The baseline principle behind the Conference was to drive home the key message that the contribution that women can make in leadership is fundamental. Organisers argue that therein lies the necessity behind the event: it serves as an important forum to not only celebrate the achievement of women in technology, but also to celebrate the platform that is technology.

Keynote speaker Enyonam Kumahor, originally from Ghana and regional MD of Pan-Africa for global IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks, referred to several examples of how women entrepreneurs in Africa have contributed extensively to the development of technology throughout the Continent, including the introduction of MainOne submarine cable and the mobile platform and mobile money-driven ecommerce website Soko.

“I think more needs to be done… even when I look at university classes, I am still not seeing enough of a mix between men and women. Even at high schools, when I speak at schools, I don’t hear girls being really enthusiastic and confident that this is the field for them. So, until I see that in the eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year olds, and see the numbers really take a significant shift, there is more that we can do- and should do,” said Kumahor.

Changing perceptions

According to Kumahor, the lack of mentorship and female role models is a challenge to creating an environment that is conducive for greater female representation. “For me personally, I think the thing that helped me is that I was never one for peer pressure. For myself and other colleagues is to have other women there… now it is a growing field and there is more girls entering the market.”

Kumahor mentions Kenya and Senegal as regions where there is clear progress being made in terms of women entering the field in Africa. Although businesses are trying to recruit more women, the challenge is that the pipeline is simply not there she says. “We have to have a longer term view and start with girls. The challenge for me is that, even today, the business environment – going into the office, the way meetings are held, the way business cultures are – is still not necessarily inviting to the women. We have to figure out how to change the culture of business to be one where both women and men can work together. It is still too often that a women feels the challenge and asks ‘do I have to act more like a man to make it?’.”

Derek Wilcocks, CEO of Dimension data, discussed the topic If Technology isn’t improving your customer experience, you’re doing it wrong. He acknowledges that there is little doubt that, relative to the population at large, women are under-represented in the ICT industry. “It is very hard to put your finger on the details on why that is the case… in Dimension Data’s case we recently started a womens forum specifically to try to address these issues. We continue to grapple with the exact reasons why we as a company, and I think our industry, is relatively under-represented at all levels in the organisation, from a female perspective,” he said.

Wilcocks said the challenges that Dimension Data faces is the huge scarcity of skills. “I think that if our industry cannot say to people of any gender or race that ‘if you have the skills, the aptitude, the value system we are looking for, you are welcome in this industry, you are welcome in this company’, then I think you fundamentally weaken the company and the industry itself.”

Videsha Proothveerajh, Intel South Africa’s Country Manager, emphasises the need for education and the combined effort of all stakeholders to address this issue. She said that in South Africa there the ratio of the number of boys and girls that enrol in primary school is balanced. “But when you look at the numbers of the kids that leave Matric, the ratios are unbalanced. I believe the statistic is that only 30% of kids enrolled in school actually matriculate. Another statistic is that for every extra year that a girl child stays in secondary school, it increases her earning potential by twenty to thirty percent.”

Proothveerajh has reviewed enrolment ratios and South Africa is on par with developing countries, but the rest of Africa is lagging. “But there are pockets of excellence… and you find where there is a concerted effort with government, with NGOs and individuals, you see that there is impact and change. We are where we are, but everyone needs to know their role and do something to change it.”

She refers to a statistic in one of Intel’s reports which states that countries where there is a better representation, in terms of equality between men and women, in education and in the corporate world, have faster and more pronounced economic growth.

“For me it is not a societal cause… it is really about economics, it is about money at the end of the day as well. How do we make sure that women can claim their rightful place in society, it is an economic benefit to the country and the world. So it makes sense on all levels,” she adds.

Proothveerajh stresses the importance of awareness, particularly in terms of the number of girls within the STEM (Science, Technology, Economics and Maths) subjects, as well as the value that sponsorship by business representatives, in the form of a contract, to mentor youngsters and expose them to the realities of a life in IT.

Chris Tredger – Online Editor